The effort to untangle the story behind the kidnapping and murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl has limitations that have frustrated some of our finest minds. “Who Killed Daniel Pearl?” Bernard Henri-Lévy’s exhaustive and exhaustingly impressionistic dossier, often resorted to impassioned and sometimes inflammatory speculation. The filmed version of his account is currently in production, though with this week’s release of A Mighty Heart, based on Daniel’s wife Mariane Pearl’s memoir of the same name, it will be the second installment in what will surely become a crowded interpretive oeuvre. (Five years later, new information is still surfacing, with the confession of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to the actual murder coming this past March.)
A Mighty Heart’s director Michael Winterbottom takes a guiding tonal cue from Pearl’s elegiac book -- a “Who Survived Daniel Pearl” to Henri-Lévy’s baroque assemblage --but the Winterbottom imprimatur marks every frame, and the film is as much rough-and-ready thriller as it is tragic memoir. Henri-Lévy’s book took an almost obsessive approach to recreation, with the author following in Daniel’s footsteps in the weeks and days leading up to his death. So why does this film, an account of someone who actually was there, and was shot largely on actual locations, leave one wishing for the passion and outrage of the French philosopher’s would-be eyewitness account?
That is not to say that A Mighty Heart is not skillfully executed, intensely engaging and deeply affecting; it is most certainly those things, to the degree that when its own limitations eke through, they glare by comparison. Shot in a blitzkrieg documentary style that somehow lends itself to a series of refractory flashbacks, Winterbottom recreates the agonizing days following Pearl’s disappearance through the activities of Mariane Pearl (Angelina Jolie in brown contacts and a Nefertiti headdress of curls) and then the investigative crew that mobilizes around her in Pakistan. There are several brief scenes of Daniel (Dan Futterman) on his own, but no clear sense of what he is after and no details of the kidnapping itself or his time as a hostage. Rather than the journalists they were, Daniel seems more like a curious guy-about-Karachi, and Mariane (five months pregnant at this time) a doting wife and dinner party-planner. There are brief allusions to the peril a white American Jew asking questions might face in a Muslim nation in January 2002, as there will later be to the issues of torture, Guantanamo Bay and the snakepit of political contexts and counter-contexts in play, but they feel peripheral and distractingly inadequate.
Instead the bulk of the story -- the month between the disappearance and the delivery of the now infamous video titled “The Slaughter of the Spy-Journalist, the Jew Daniel Pearl” -- is crafted as a multi-national, multi-media missing persons procedural that happens to take place in post 9/11 Pakistan. The Pearls were staying with Wall Street Journal colleague Asra (Archie Panjabi) and her building becomes home base for the team of American journalists, ISI (Pakistani secret police, whom Henri-Lévy suggests were in on the murder) and FBI agents who congregate there. Asra’s home, where Mariane remains, is largely reactive terrain; the ricochet of information is dramatized as emotional currency.
As that information begins to conflict, overlap and upend itself, the disorienting editing conveys the chaos of both Mariane’s situation and that of the crises faced by various affected parties, from the Pakistani government to The Journal to the CIA to their host, who suffers for her Indian heritage. Laptops are manned and monitored desperately, like glowing sphinxes that issue forth tidings both ominous and encouraging. It is impossible to watch these interactions untainted by the foreknowledge of what those beacons of global communication will eventually be used to disseminate.
Despite that knowledge, A Mighty Heart allows its players to talk through theories with compelling, searching ideas, and injects the futile race against time with hopeful adrenaline. Amid nearly constant cacophony, disorder and suspicion, Winterbottom leavens the ominous otherness of his locations with ambiguously sympathetic local characters, most notably “Captain” (The Namesake’s Irfan Khan), a police inspector who drives the investigation (sometimes brutally) forward. As opposed to the American feds, who appear in the form of a brittle FBI agent uninterested in either sharing information or the state of Daniel’s wife. When news of the tape arrives, Jolie’s composed, stone-willed performance as Mariane cracks open with a guttural cry that contains all of the horror and grief of that tape, which is not shown and need not be. It is apparently not a part of Ms. Pearl’s memory and I thank Christ it is still not a part of mine.
After that scene the film loses not just the formidable momentum of the search but a bit of focus as well, and in that breather the viewer is given the opportunity to return to the myriad questions left unanswered. Pearl’s family, who appear sporadically early on, mainly to offer some stateside naiveté, are not part of the coda, which includes a saintly dinner speech from Mariane, flashbacks to their idyllic wedding and the birth of their son. It is a slightly discombobulating reminder that this is Mariane’s story -- and that is fair enough -- but also that the story of the Spy-Journalist, the Jew Daniel Pearl, remains to be told.
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