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A Mighty Heart

dir: Michael Winterbottom
[img_assist|nid=97|title=The man himself on his wedding day|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=240|height=360]
Daniel Pearl was a journalist working in Pakistan when he was kidnapped by terrorists in 2002. He was held for several days, as his six-month’s pregnant wife Mariane Pearl, their friends, colleagues, fellow journalists and the Pakistani police and ISI security forces, US Embassy staff, FBI, the then Secretary of State Colin Powell and probably Batman as well all tried to secure his release.

If you never heard the story in the media because you were too busy downloading pirated media of all sorts and purposes, or you were watching slack-jawed and mouth agape at the antics of the latest reality television contestants instead, then perhaps the events depicted in A Mighty Heart will be exciting and new. Perhaps then the flick’s structure as an investigative thriller might thrill you.
Of course, if that was the case you’re also probably not likely to give a damn over the fate of a journalist, loathsome creatures that they are.

If you know what Daniel’s fate was at the hands of these vile bastards, then the question this flick might satisfy for you won’t be ‘what happened?’ so much as the how and the why of it.

Daniel Pearl (Dan Futterman) looks like a bit of a shy nebbish, but he’s a hard-charging journalist for the prestigious Wall Street Journal. Working as an Asian bureau chief for the paper that lines the bird cages of the wealthy and powerful, he pursues a lead about the possible connections between Al Qaeda, the so-called ‘Shoe Bomber’ Richard Reid and the Pakistani internal security force, the ISI. He and his journalist wife Mariane (Angelina Jolie) live and work in Karachi, described as the second largest city in the world. Second in size, and probably number 1 in terms of having lots of people standing around for no obvious reason.

In pursuit of his story, he disappears. Mariane starts contacting everyone she can because she fears the worst, and statements and photos on the net seem to confirm her worst fears.

The thing is, whether it’s actually true or not, or whether it’s a completely fictionalised dramatisation, Mariane and her friends and colleagues approach the problem like journalists. They search for every scrap of data about Daniel’s planned meeting that night, plot it all out, and then follow the paths until they find something fruitful, or double back on dead ends and red herrings to find where to pick the trail up again. It screams of a screenwriter’s conceit to me, but it makes sense considering the people involved. Why would they approach the problem in any other way?

The Pakistani officials and US State Department goons are no less helpful, professional and driven to find Daniel. In stories like this, fictional or otherwise, there are always bureaucratic arseholes acting as more of an impediment than the criminals and terrorists themselves. I guess there is one scene with a minister which shows how complicated the political situation is in Pakistan, where the guy seems to assert the idea that there’s no way he’s going to help find Daniel, since he’s obviously working for the CIA.

Daniel is accused by the press, by his captors, by various taxi drivers and barbers of being, alternately, a CIA, Mossad, Secret Service or MI-6 agent and, also, the guy who was really on the grassy knoll that made Lee Harvey Oswald’s day back at Deley Plaza oh so long ago. The other most damning aspect of his existence that ‘proves’ he’s guilty of something is that he’s from a Jewish background.

It’s implied, with footage of an interview that Daniel and Mariane are conducting, that one hardline fundamentalist guy, muttering idiotic imprecations against Israel and claiming the blood libel that 4000 Jews who should have been at the World Trade Center on that fateful day, weren’t, that maybe Daniel was taken just because he was Jewish.

But there are many other suspects as well. In fact, most of Pakistan seems to have been in on it. Using fairly aggressive handheld camerawork, and choppy editing, the film creates an almost action film type atmosphere, completely eclipsing a film which is virtually identical in intent (but not in reality or purpose) such as The Kingdom, and for probably a tenth of the budget.

Jolie as Mariane, who does well with the part, is a distraction. She does remarkably well with the heavy accent, and approximates what Mariane looks like, but you can’t forget for a moment that Jolie is in the film. Her accent doesn’t remind you at all of the terrible Natasha from Rocky and Bullwinkle accent she perpetrated in movies as disparate as Alexander and Beowulf; both movies about two mythical gay icons.
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It’s a contradictory irony: the film might have been taken more seriously if Jolie wasn’t in the lead role (seemingly) pandering for an Oscar. But the flick wouldn’t have been made without her and Brad Pitt’s involvement as producers. As I joked to a friend of mine, it puts director Michael Winterbottom in a difficult position when the lead is a star of her power, and when you have Pitt sitting just off set in a chair stroking a white Persian cat like he’s a Bond villain.

But the further irony is that she gives, mostly, a strong and believable performance.

Daniel as a character doesn’t really live for us as a character. He exists more as just a snapshot of a guy, put up on screen to remind us of who they’re all pining for. We get the idea that he was loved, that he was respected by his peers, and that he was a good journalist. We don’t watch his fate from his point of view, only tangentially as they search for him. And I am thankful that we don’t as viewers get to see his fate. Neither does Mariane at first, believing it to be something she doesn’t need to see. She is, after all, about to give birth to their first child after this horrible time. Despite the best (or worst) efforts of the film’s editor, I think I got the impression that the watching of the video becomes even more of a plot point for her just before the end.

Another interesting detail involves a CNN interview she gives hoping to rally supporters, focus attention on Daniel’s plight whilst not minimising the Pakistani victims of terrorism. Despite not having slept for days, Mariane is calm, articulate and self-possessed, which actually causes one female producer to remark something along the lines of “you wouldn’t know her husband had been missing for six days.” It’s remarkable: the fact that she wasn’t a dribbling mess, and that she was actively trying to help her husband in the only ways she could think of in a calm and professional manner, counted against her in terms of public opinion.

Also remarkable, as are most things to do with the internet that aren’t utterly suffused with banality, is the amount of negative opinion that exists about both Daniel and Mariane. Sure, some of that is just the disdain and loathing of journalists in general and some specifically by sections of the media and the public. Some of it, as the film slyly incorporates into its story, is the contempt that may arise for correspondents who travel to far-flung countries experiencing difficult circumstances and political and cultural upheaval, with the expectation that their open-minded multiculturalism and hearty spirit of egalitarianism is going to get them through all dramas. All with the benefit of padded expense accounts, indulgent editors and the services of professional cooks and servants.

But that notion, from people who certainly don’t subscribe to the poisonous religious ideologies of those who kidnapped Daniel, that he ‘deserved’ what he got by dint of having been a journo or having travelled to Pakistan in the first place, is a pretty depressing one to contemplate. Or how Mariane is less deserving of our sympathies because she, at least on CNN’s camera, didn’t allow her husband’s fate to devastate her; it’s just staggering to me. It reminds me, just to let me get all first-year university for a second, of the manner in which the protagonist of Camus’s The Outsider is eventually found guilty of a man’s murder not because of the evidence against him, but because he didn’t cry at his mother’s funeral.

Obviously that kind of stupidity doesn’t appeal to me, because I find much to praise and little to condemn in the people this film is about, the film itself and the motivations of the people who made it. The choppy, aggressive editing did irritate me, but the manner in which the story is told, and the acknowledgement and understanding of what it is that journalists do, and why they should be able to do it without threat of death and torture, affirms much that is good about this world in which we live.[img_assist|nid=547|title=Mariane and Adam|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=120|height=160]

Daniel’s fate represents much that is awful about it as well.

8 reasons why it is not Daniel Pearl’s death that was heroic, but his life out of 10

“Their point is to terrorise people. But I am not terrorised, and you can't be terrorised.” – A Mighty Heart