A Mighty Heart tells the story of the hunt in Pakistan for kidnapped Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl through the eyes of his pregnant wife, Mariane, played by Angelina Jolie dipped in caramel. Aside from Jolie—who is very fine, though improbably cast—and a sprinkling of idyllic flashbacks (Daniel gazing into his wife’s eyes, Daniel caressing her swollen belly), the movie is clipped, blunt, and grimly realistic. It is practically a policier, although the suspense is mitigated by our knowledge that the investigation will end badly. There’s surprisingly little in the way of politics (the director is the Brit Michael Winterbottom, who’s not known for reticence in that area) and no overarching message—apart from Pearl’s shining example as an investigative journalist. The conclusions we must draw for ourselves.
The most obvious is that in late 2001 and early 2002, we (by which I mean the American media and its consumers) had little idea of the deadly labyrinth into which the “war on terror” would lead us. When we meet Pearl (Dan Futterman, an uncanny look-alike), he’s en route to interview a volubly anti-American sheikh, possibly connected to would-be “shoe bomber” Richard Reid. Pearl is no naïf, but the meeting is supposed to take place in public, in a restaurant; he’s an internationally known journalist—an unlikely target, even as Jew, for jihadists with a message to get out. From a taxi he phones his wife, who’s shopping for a dinner party that night, to say he loves her and will try not to be too late.
The team that subsequently forms around Mariane does not seem promising. Daniel’s colleague Asra Nomani (Archie Panjabi) is of Indian descent and therefore suspect: Some Pakistanis maintained that Pearl’s kidnapping was orchestrated by India to make their country look bad. A Journal editor (Gary Wilmes) is a bit of a nebbish—not particularly hard-driving. Will Patton plays the guy from the U.S. consulate, and Patton has made a career of embodying shifty American officials. There’s no telling which side the Pakistani police captain (Irfan Khan) is on: America’s so-called ally in the war on terror has been unreliable, and Pearl was investigating alleged ties between Reid and its Police Department. The country’s press reports that Pearl is alternately an agent of the CIA or, worse, the Mossad.
But the view of A Mighty Heart (via a book by Mariane Pearl and Sarah Crichton) is that these men and women were finally heroic, and that their combined efforts might have saved Pearl had his captors not been eager to humiliate the U.S. and Israel by turning his execution into a grisly propaganda tool. In the compound (while a woman in a headscarf washes the floors and the woman’s little boy plays in the courtyard), Mariane works the phones and Internet, and diagrams the relationships of the major players. Theories are batted around, leads pursued, cell-phone records seized. It’s a surrogate family. The Captain (as the Pakistani policeman is called) and a contingent of soldiers hunt down men who are links in the chain. Patton’s Randall Bennett watches with approval (bordering on pleasure) as suspects are hung up, beaten, and dunked in water. Given that Winterbottom’s last film was the righteous docudrama The Road to Guantánamo, it’s a shock to see him dramatize torture so neutrally. The methods aren’t endorsed, as in 24, but they’re unlikely, in this context, to make anyone yelp about the Geneva Conventions.
Mariane Pearl is French and of partly Afro-Cuban descent—a challenge for a Caucasian-American (even an exotic-looking one) to pull off. It’s hard to forget she’s who she is, but Jolie is a remarkably canny actress, and she plays Mariane with the kind of brusque economy that characterizes the real woman’s writing and public appearances. Jolie tamps down her drama-queen instincts. Her Mariane is not, by and large, an emoter: When someone compliments her for “holding herself together” in a statement she tapes to her husband’s captors, she responds with disbelief. Her only false note is the fault of the script: When she hears of the videotape that documents her husband’s decapitation, she snarls almost at once that she will never see it. Although Mariane reportedly hasn’t seen it, it’s unlikely she came out with the line in the throes of the horror. No one is that self-possessed.
A Mighty Heart does not re-create any part of that videotape, for which I am both grateful and sorry. Winterbottom shows admirable respect for Mariane Pearl and the memory of her husband, but the film needs an exclamation point, something visceral to drive home the fate of Daniel Pearl. In writing about this movie, I finally forced myself to watch that video. Apart from my relief that the actual killing isn’t shown, I was struck by how pointed its message (as articulated by Pearl on-camera) is: that no American is safe. Since then, Pearl’s death has shown up in the culture in myriad forms, if only subtextually in movies like Babel (where Americans appear chillingly vulnerable in the Third World). Even the splatter director Eli Roth (Hostel) invoked Pearl’s murder recently to justify the genre I’ve dubbed “torture porn”—and however opportunistic, he’s not wrong in claiming a link. Near the end of the film, Jolie’s Mariane has the team over for dinner and thanks them for their help. She says they didn’t fail—that the aim of terrorists is instilling terror. That’s what A Mighty Heart, for all its power, doesn’t do.