Road Pictures for Our Time

Right now a political filmmaker of great talent is making more than one film a year -- 17 in the last 15 years. That's the good news. The bad news is that his work has yet to be viewed by a substantial audience.

That filmmaker is Michael Winterbottom, director of this summer's A Mighty Heart, an adaptation of Mariane Pearl's memoir of the kidnapping and murder of her husband, reporter Daniel Pearl. The red-carpet attractions of its star, Angelina Jolie, have helped publicize the film, but they have not brought it high box-office returns. The same was true for another of Winterbottom's films, In This World (2002): It received so little distribution when it came out stateside four years ago that if you saw it, you were probably a film critic.

Despite his still small following, Winter-bottom deserves to be known as a filmmaker for our time. At 46, the British-born and London-based director can handle, without apparent strain or sanctimony, themes of religious radicalism, national boundary crossing, and poverty. Unlike Sicko's Michael Moore, Winterbottom is interested in conditions and situations rather than in single issues, single villains, or a single dim-witted, belligerent president who dodged the draft and mangles grammar. Moore and Syriana's radical-chic writer/director Stephen Gaghan are parochial in comparison, pale descendents of a previous generation of filmmakers who offered unique investigations of political corruption -- Alan Pakula's The Parallax View (1974), Costa-Gavras' Z (1969), or Gillo Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers (1966) -- films in which the corruption was centered on a couple of bad guys with mustaches or on the regime of a nation in colonial upheaval.

In contrast, Winterbottom's best film to date, In This World, is about an entire part of the world and how it is linked to Europe through money, labor, and geography. The film's leading characters, two young Afghan men, leave a refugee camp where children make bricks for a living, smuggling themselves via a migratory silk route to London. They buy their way onto trucks, buses, and, most terrifyingly, a nearly airless ship container, traversing Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Italy, and England. Here, as in other films, Winter-bottom appropriates the road movie, creating and becoming the master of a new genre, the political road movie.

Dispensing with the road movie's typical coming-of-age or square-turning-bohemian story lines, the leads of Winterbottom's best films hurtle between the populous, violently devout cities of newspaper headlines -- Tehran, Sarajevo, Karachi -- places where living, let alone making a movie, is an extreme sport. Among those films are Welcome to Sarajevo, about the war in Bosnia, and The Road to Guantanamo (which he co-directed), a docudrama about three British Muslims captured in Afghanistan, turned over to U.S. forces, and jailed for two years as alleged enemy combatants in Guantanamo. He tends to cast as many nonprofessional actors as he can manage. The leads in In This World were non-actors; after making the film, one of them went as a refugee to the U.K., where he was told he would have to leave before his 18th birthday.

It would seem that Winterbottom, with his production company Revolution Films, sees himself as an activist, or at the very least, an advocate. But trying to get a bead on his ambient politics isn't as easy. In one interview, in that irritating, I-am-a-cipher-movie-person way, Winterbottom resentfully shrugged off the suggestion that he made "political films." Yet he has also said, "If you want to be political, you have to do something in the mainstream, something that is going to affect a number of people." He has derided the Labour Party in print for being too disconnected from the people it represents and, last month, echoing the relativism that is now a habit of mind for the European Left in an interview with The Washington Post: "There are extremists on both sides who want to ratchet up the levels of violence, and hundreds of thousands of people have died because of this."

Winterbottom's lyrical, equalizing Leftism, a proclivity that Judea Pearl, Daniel Pearl's father, took issue with on The New Republic's Web site this summer, suits him in a way: The last time great political filmmakers stomped the earth, during the 1970s, the story was literally binary, in the fashion of all Cold War tales. Winterbottom has come into his talents in a period when it's hard to get a fix, when there seem to be a multitude of evils, some good, and a whole lot of blur.

Aesthetically, Winterbottom is also committed to blur, his jagged, on-the-run style created, in part, by hand-held cameras and digital film and occasionally improvised dialogue. "We didn't tell the characters to be happy or sad, because we couldn't do that. We didn't share their culture," he has said of the non-actor leads of In This World. "We simply organized the journey, the mechanics." The preference for improvisation has deep roots in political cinema, as if to underline how "real" and close to the ground a particular film is, but it also suits Winterbottom's fascination with social systems that have broken down. As these systems waver, there's real shock and suspense, as in one Winterbottom film scene, where three boys climb an icy mountain at night in order to cross from Iran to Turkey. It's shot in night-vision film and with a hand-held camera that runs and slips and hides with the actors, so the audience is forced to share their physical exertion, fear, and night blindness.

The cities he films tend to be derogated by the West as incubators for thieves, terrorists, and zealots; Winterbottom shows them as also sublimely beautiful. There are dun-colored mountain passes in Iran; bright, decaying streets in Pakistan where vendors sell giant flatbreads to boys who will soon be imprisoned as terrorists; and a boy seeking asylum in London using the truck in which he is being smuggled as a jungle gym. Even Code 46, a sci-fi film, is really about the look and feel of the "developing" world: In that film, some people live in protected zones, played by Shanghai and London, and the others in unprotected ones, played by Dubai and India, sandy places where throngs compete to survive -- and the latter are far lovelier.

In his latest film, A Mighty Heart, Winterbottom's improvisational grace is on display in images of the woman who wipes the floors at the home where the Pearls stayed, the taxi cab drivers whose vehicles are pressed bumper to bumper on every street, and the men walking somberly in long cotton shirts down detritus-lined streets. There's also a subplot in the film that, in its internecine ambiguity, is pure Winterbottom -- Pakistan's counter-terrorism unit's investigation of Pearl's kidnapping while the government stonewalls.

When A Mighty Heart falters, though, it does so because Winterbottom deviates from his loyalty to the street, largely to attend to the overwhelming presence of Angelina Jolie as Mariane Pearl -- the lips, the halo of artificial black, curly hair and tinted skin, the Medea-like primal scream, the adopted brood waiting in the trailer just offscreen. Whatever anyone says about Jolie's new-found humility, she certainly chews the scenery here. And A Mighty Heart has a directorial issue as well. Winterbottom doesn't use celebrities or stars particularly well in his films -- see Tim Robbins' awkward performance in the film Code 46. The director seems uncomfortable centering his films on conventionally glamorous, romantic, famous, or heroic people. That discomfort, bordering on ineptitude, weakens A Mighty Heart.

Winterbottom's disregard for individuals hurt his previous effort, The Road to Guantanamo, as well. The film pivots on the presumption that the Tipton Three were innocent tourists, yet one has since admitted to having been trained by al-Qaeda. The film's lack of skepticism and attendant psychological depth -- ostensibly Winterbottom didn't know the truth, although there's a chance that he simply didn't care -- now mars it.

By and large, though, Winterbottom's disinterest in celebrated people gives his best films an oceanic feel that American films, with their faith in singular heroes, can't even fake. It remains to be seen when and if Winterbottom's full promise will be realized. It would help, I think, for him to lay off the Jolie-style stars and hew to his small-budget obsession with the interlocking grid of global poverty, misrule, and transmigration. His next feature, Murder in Samarkand, due out in 2008, will be a pitch-black comedy centered on a real-life British ambassador, Craig Murray, played by British television comedian Steve Coogan. Murray struggled to expose a murderous dictatorship in Uzbekistan, compiling a list of his host government's slayings and other abuses. According to the ambassador's memoir, on which the film is based, the British Foreign Office ultimately, and unfairly, dismissed him from his post.

With his new film, as with A Mighty Heart, Winterbottom may be one of the few Western directors that can enter the Arab or Pakistani street at street level. He is good at stimulating viewers' sympathetic imaginations, reminding those in the protected zone about those in the unprotected one. He represents difficult places with such urgency that Americans watching his films are unlikely to be able to wander mentally back to their own swaddled lives. And that confrontation with and sympathy for the real beyond our borders, not a fashionable film screed or a flashy Hollywood feature with liberal leanings, is what we need most.