» "What Would You Tell Him?"
» "They've Been Planning Something for Weeks"
Bringing the story of kidnapped Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl to the big screen--with Angelina Jolie starring, no less--could easily have devolved into cheesy movie-of-the-week fare, over-the-top love story, violent action thriller, or blatant political screed. That "A Mighty Heart" is none of those--or rather, has pieces of all of them, generally in the right proportion--is a testament not only to the filmmakers, but to the keepers of Pearl's memory, especially his widow, Mariane, on whose book of the same title the movie is closely based.
Somehow, the movie manages to maintain a sense of suspense, even though we're well aware of the gruesome outcome. Investigating the Richard Reid "shoe bomber" case, Pearl believes he is heading for a meeting with an elusive and dangerous terrorist leader in Karachi, Pakistan, when he is abducted and eventually killed, the video of his beheading released by his murderers. "A Mighty Heart" focuses on the search for Pearl, by Pakistani and U.S. authorities, in the days and weeks after his disappearance. Investigators swarm the Karachi home of the Pearls' close friend, Asra Nomani--at the time a fellow Wall Street Journal reporter and now a well-known Muslim feminist--and use her home as a base, running down clue after clue, getting closer by the day but ultimately failing.
The way that Mariane reacts to the tragedy is nothing short of heroic, which ultimately elevates "A Mighty Heart" into something more than a movie about yet another terrorist incident. The same is true for Danny's parents, Ruth and Judea, though they play only bit roles in this movie. When they could have turned inward in grief or lashed out in hatred against Muslims, they instead decided to build bridges, promote dialogue, and use this tragedy to improve the world.
Even in the depths of her sorrow, Mariane is unbroken, refusing to play the victim. As the search for her husband intensifies, she--a French journalist several months pregnant at the time--participates calmly and coherently in the investigation, her growing desperation seen only in her private moments, when she tries, futilely, to call his cell phone and kneels before a home altar to recite a Buddhist chant. After learning of her husband's brutal fate, she allows herself one private, extended, agonized cry before insisting that the murderers have not won. The terrorists' purpose is to terrorize, she says, "but I am not terrorized." Mariane (played beautifully by an Angelina Jolie looking nothing like Angelina Jolie) has the wherewithal, even at the moment of her deepest grief, to tell the media that a dozen other people, all Pakistanis, were killed that month by terrorists. Despite her loss, she insists that she has no monopoly on suffering and that her personal drama is not unique. (Can you tell she's not American?)
At the same time, the film doesn't sugarcoat Pearl's situation or the larger geopolitical realities. Rumors fly in the Pakistani media, and conspiracy theories are rampant: The kidnapping was the work of Indian agents, the 9/11 attacks were committed by Israel, Danny Pearl is CIA, and of course, Danny is Mossad. Wondering why Pearl was targeted, one character surmises that it is just because he is American. That the kidnappers also got a Jew--the son of Israelis, to boot--was, of course, a bonus to them. Pearl's Jewishness is neither ignored nor over-played, just like it was in his own life, where he lived a secular lifestyle but retained his self-identity as a Jew.
Unfortunately, the impact of Pearl's final words, caught on the horrific videotape of his death--"My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish"--is beyond the scope of this movie. With their echo of Jewish martyrdom throughout the ages, those words, whether forced or volunteered, instantly became both a point of pride for Jews worldwide and a sobering reminder that, in the eyes of anti-Semites, a Jew is just a Jew, no matter how secular and untraditional they are, no matter how liberal and open-minded and worldly they are, no matter how much they embrace multiculturalism and diversity.
But like Mariane, the movie steadfastly refuses to point fingers at whole groups, seeing individual choices as just that. She harbors no ill will toward Pakistan or Islam, and the movie insists that we follow suit. Some of the Pakistani investigators are sincere, compassionate, and determined; others stall, or are even complicit in the crime. Some of the Americans are obnoxious and domineering; most are kind-hearted and level headed.
The movie isn't flawless, especially when it comes to (over)dramatizing the Pearls' romance, and one moment in particular rings especially false. Mariane works up the courage to watch her husband's death video and comments in a voice-over that she can now face any challenge--and the scene cuts immediately to the labor room, where she is is giving birth to her son. Juxtaposing the gruesome death of her husband with the pain of childbirth cheapens both events, in my mind. But she redeems herself by then declaring that this movie is for Adam, the baby who Danny never met. It's a fitting memorial, and I'm glad that she's sharing it with us.