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P> Michael Winterbottom's A Mighty Heart launches us into reality in the film's opening frames. A voice-over reciting text from Mariane Pearl's memoir leads right into stock footage of the United States' assault on Afghanistan in the months following Sept. 11, 2001. More authenticity follows: Footage of Colin Powell and a news report about the Guantanamo prison camps. For the movie's screenplay, Pearl's nonfiction book was religiously adhered to by Winterbottom, so that not a moment would play contrary to the facts as Pearl recounted them.

Yet this is the most fictive thing Winterbottom has made in years.

For Winterbottom, the insurance of the real is old hat. He started his career making documentaries for British television, and after a stint crafting gritty narrative features, the prolific filmmaker reinvented himself. From 2002 on, Winterbottom has made films at the nexus of fiction and documentary, redefining our concept of both and crystallizing their elusive overlap more than any director in the West. His films exist in a murky gray area where scripted narrative thrust commingles with the wondrous unpredictability of captured life, a trait he shares with Iranian auteurs like Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi but few directors in English-language cinema.

Whether he's fictionally chronicling politics, pop music or the art of cinema itself, documentary accountability is ubiquitous, leaving viewers to question where facts end and the fiction begins. Even the sex is real in one Winterbottom movie.

For some directors, the employment of so-called "reality" in a fictional film is a gimmick, a ruse to gain credibility for their novelty projects. Gabriel Range's Death of a President, while commendable for other reasons, is one such title, its collision of stock footage with pseudodocumentary interviews amounting to little more than a cinematic magic trick — a "Look what we can do!" experiment in duping the public.

For Winterbottom, though, the infiltration of the real is a way to get to a deeper and more profound truth than can be achieved through the comforting distance of narrative. The fiction-doc hybrid (I hesitate to use the term docudrama, because only one of Winterbottom's '00s movies could qualify as such) that would become his signature started with 24 Hour Party People, 2002's enormously entertaining romp through the late-'70s Manchester music scene through the eyes of its not-so-humble narrator, new wave entrepreneur Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan). Right away, vintage footage of a Sex Pistols performance is seamlessly integrated with newly shot scenes of the miniscule crowd that dances to them, creating the movie's inciting incident.

More real faces pop up in fictional roles, including members of the Fall and Inspiral Carpets, but unless you're a Manchester music expert, you wouldn't know it. Wilson omnisciently takes the opportunity to stop the film, replay the images of the pop stars, tell the audience who they are and finally make a self-reflexive prophecy that more info will be included on the DVD.

The movie also places the events in Manchester into the larger sociopolitical context with more stock footage, only hinting at the political engagement in which Winterbottom would soon immerse himself. His next project, In This World, solidified his importance as a topical filmmaker with the story of the perilous trek taken by Afghani refugees toward the safe haven of Great Britain.

In this film, more than any other Winterbottom title, it's hard to tell what's real and what isn't. The movie's two protagonists are played by themselves, and we can only assume that when one character dies, the nonactor who played him is still "in this world." At any rate, the two refugees' extraordinary journey through an underground railroad of connections culminates in an inhuman 40-hour boat ride to Europe. Winterbottom's lyrical direction is caught between letting the narrative take over and observing the reality behind the drama he's (re)created.

Two years later, the X-rated 9 Songs stirred up controversy among the three people who saw it. The same debate that pops up every time a sexually explicit film plays in mainstream theaters (Intimacy, Romance, The Brown Bunny, etc.) erected itself once again: Is it porn or art?

Whatever. It's a debate for another time. What's important is that the intercourse, much like the nine concert performances from Franz Ferdinand, Primal Scream, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and others that give the film its title, are uncompromisingly real, despite the plotless fictional framework of a dwindling relationship that surrounds these two visceral pleasures of sex and rock & roll.

Revisiting Coogan, Winterbottom then went back to snarky comedy with Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. The film is very nearly a 94-minute inside joke, but it was one of the funniest movies of 2006 if you were in on it. For about 20 minutes, it's a postmodern adaptation of Laurence Sterne's complex novel The Life and Opinions and Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Then we hear a director yell "Cut," and the rest of the movie presents the everyday chaos of a film set — a kind of Day for Night for the Extras set.

Coogan and fellow actor Rob Brydon play versions of themselves, and references are made to each actor's previous works. This familiarity, coupled with the improv-conducive atmosphere of the typical Winterbottom shoot, gives the impression of an inside peek at how these actors really communicate with one another. This, too, may be entirely put on, but by exposing the backstage maneuverings behind a film's artifice, the appearance of reality is ensured.

Then it was back to politics again with The Road to Guantanamo, the best and most important film of Winterbottom's career. A piece of filmed journalism, it fulfills the requirements for a docudrama, with staged scenes intercut with personal testimony from the story's real-life counterparts. It details the case of three Muslims living in Britain who picked the wrong day to travel through Afghanistan for a wedding. Corralled and thrown in Guantanamo for two years without a single charge leveled against them, their story is, like In This World, symptomatic and symbolic of a much larger problem.

Where In This World is poetic and impressionistic, Guantanamo is direct and unflinching. The dramatizations reveal conditions so barbaric they have to be seen to be believed, and the U.S. military interrogators are shown blatantly lying to bait the captors into the response they want. It's the kind of film that makes you ashamed to live in George Bush's America.

A Mighty Heart is a natural step for Winterbottom, who, in his third film in six years about the Muslim world and its relationship to the West, is creating a living history of strife, an educational time capsule of life during wartime, an extended cautionary tale of 21st-century terrors. And he's doing it all by keeping it real.

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