A Mighty Heart tells the story of the hunt in Pakistan for kidnapped Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl through the eyes of his very pregnant wife, Mariane. The film is gripping: Apart from flashbacks that dramatize Mariane's idyllic memories of Daniel, it's clipped, blunt, and grimly realistic. It's almost a police procedural, with a focus on the nuts and bolts of the investigation. Our suspense is lessened, though, by our knowledge that it will end badly. And the movie's power might be lessened by director Michael Winterbottom's respect for the feelings of Mariane Pearl, who refused to watch the widely circulated video that documented her husband's final moments. This is the rare case of a film that doesn't bludgeon us enough.
The movie's message isn't spelled out but is easily inferred. Angelina Jolie, who plays Mariane, and her significant other, Brad Pitt, who helped produce with Mariane, didn't want to turn one of the most horrifying stories in journalism into a general indictment of Islam or Pakistan, or a movie about murderous anti-Semitism in the Muslim world. By sticking with the process, they show how the team that formed around Mariane became an improbable surrogate family.
I say "improbable" because they're a strange mix. Daniel's colleague Asra Nomani, played by Archie Panjabi, is of Indian descent, which makes her suspect in the eyes of Pakistanis — some of whom put forward the ridiculous idea that Pearl's kidnapping was orchestrated by India. Then there's Will Patton as a higher-up in the U.S. consulate: Patton has made a career out of embodying shifty American officials. A Wall Street Journal editor is a decent guy, but not a beacon of focus. And who knows which side the Pakistani captain, played by Irfan Khan, is on? When he's kidnapped, Pearl is looking at alleged ties between the so-called shoe bomber Richard Reid and the Pakistani police.
The Pakistani government wants to play up the nonexistent Indian connection; the FBI doesn't understand the country's culture. But it's the view of A Mighty Heart that Mariane and her team might have saved Daniel had his captors not been too eager to execute him. In their compound, she and others work the phones and Internet and diagram the relationships among the major players. They're shocked to discover the truth about the sheik that Daniel set out to meet.
There's a disbelief that now seems quaint that hangs over the investigation. In late 2001, American journalists had little idea of the deadly labyrinth into which the "war on terror" would lead them. Mariane and Daniel, played by Dan Futterman, are no naifs, but as long as Daniel meets his subject in a public place, he considers himself an unlikely target, even as a Jew, for jihadists with a message to get out.
Mariane is French and of partly Afro-Cuban descent — a challenge for a Caucasian American, even an exotic-looking one, to put over. It's hard to forget Jolie is who she is, but she's a canny actress, and she plays Mariane with a brusque economy that's true to the real woman in interviews. Mariane took some heat for not seeming sufficiently emotional in her videotaped plea to Daniel's captors, but the movie makes the case that she has to tamp down her emotions for the sake of her unborn baby.
A Mighty Heart does not recreate any part of the videotape she refused to see, for which I am grateful and sorry. The film needs something visceral to drive home Daniel's fate. In writing about this movie, I finally forced myself to watch that atrocity 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. A Mighty Heart means to celebrate Pearl's life, but his death and what it represents is, like it or not, central to his legacy.