Michael Winterbottom's theatrical depiction of the search for journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan captures suspense and pain, but doesn't do justice to the cross-cultural exchanges the tragedy ignited
Friday, June 22, 2007
Most viewers will know the tragic ending to this story. On February 21, 2002, Mariane Pearl and her team of investigators received a horrific video of the beheading of her husband, Daniel Pearl, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. A year later, she published her memoir, A Mighty Heart: The Brave Life and Death of My Husband, Danny Pearl. Hollywood's interpretation of the book is a re-enactment of the search for the missing journalist.
Months after 9/11, Mr. Pearl was one of the first western journalists targeted while reporting on the war on terrorism. Just before returning to the United States, he had stopped in Karachi to follow a lead on a story about a Muslim cleric linked to Al Qaeda. Through obscure sources, his fixer set up an interview for him. On January 23, 2002, a taxi came and took him away.
Director Michael Winterbottom follows the book closely in A Mighty Heart. In her memoir, Mrs. Pearl juxtaposes the events leading up to the infamous video with memories of her husband. Winterbottom takes the investigation as the heart of the film, emphasizing the pace and urgency expressed in the memoir. The acclaimed director is known for his documentary style, and here he combines rapid camera movement and quick editing. The fast pace of the movie nails the desperation that Mrs. Pearl (played by Angelina Jolie) endured during those confusing weeks following her husband's disappearance.
One of the film's flaws, however, is that it does not capture the closeness between Mrs. Pearl and Captain, the chief of investigation on the Pakistani side, played by Irfan Khan (The Namesake). The film's focus on the investigation renders him a one-dimensional character. In the memoir, he was portrayed not only as an integral part of the investigation, but Mrs. Pearl's close friend and her son's godfather.
Angelina Jolie has said that she took on the role of Mariane Pearl in the hopes of encouraging cross-cultural understanding. Yet, it is not certain that the film achieves this. Scenes throughout the film portray a rather negative image of Pakistan: despondent beggars, congested streets, suspicious faces. The camera frequently allows shadows to obscure the faces of Pakistanis -- civilians and terrorism suspects alike. This murky portrayal of Pakistan, at a time when the United States is already inundated by negative sound bites from the war on terror, will make it hard for American audiences to sympathize across cultures.
It should be noted too that Daniel Pearl (played by Dan Futterman) wasn't the only journalist targeted in Pakistan. His murder was one of the very few that was actively investigated and prosecuted by the authorities. Few Pakistani journalists have the benefit of protection by their national government. The Committee to Protect Journalists says that eight journalists have been killed in Pakistan from 2002 to 2006. The seven journalists killed after Pearl were all Pakistanis and journalists advocacy organizations maintain that only Pearl's murder was thoroughly investigated. Four suspects were quickly convicted for their involvement, but they are appealing those convictions since Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a prisoner being held at Guantanamo Bay for his involvement in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, proclaimed that he personally beheaded Pearl.
Still, the film does depict socio-cultural barriers, which are suggested (if not actually developed) throughout the film: They are implied in a conversation over dinner that pokes fun at America's limited understanding of Pakistani culture, an FBI agent's snobby attitude toward the Pakistani police, Muslim prayers amid Mrs. Pearl's Buddhist chants and accusations by Pakistani media that the Pearls' host in Karachi was an Indian spy. At the time of the murder, they were being hosted by Asra Nomani (Archie Panjabi), a Wall Street Journal reporter who was with Mrs. Pearl and was part of the investigative team during Mr. Pearl's abduction.
The film has much greater success in creating suspense and tragedy. From the very first scene, the audience is catapulted into an unknown terrain where two wedded journalists are committed to dangerous careers. Mr. Pearl immediately disappears and the next hour and forty minutes overwhelm the viewer with new developments and disappointments as the team inches their way closer to the killers. When the team discovers that Mr. Pearl was beheaded, Mrs. Pearl screams alone in her room for a good minute, a scene that lays bare her anguish and anger in their multiple dimensions. Her sense of loss as a wife, a journalist and a human being is palpable as she bangs on her bedroom door.
Perhaps the film's documentary style serves to complete the story in a way the book did not. Though suspenseful in its own right, Mrs. Pearl's writing gives readers the opportunity to grapple with the softer, emotional side of her pain. But the shock-and-awe images of the silver screen provide a different experience. The film's documentary style might be confusing and too fast for those who are unfamiliar with the Daniel Pearl story, but picking up on minor details won't be as important as simply absorbing the spirit of the story: the legacy of Pearl's death and the resilience of his brave wife.
A Mighty Heart opens in theaters in the United States today.
Date Posted: 6/22/2007