A Mighty Heart
By Jim Castagnera
Special to The History Place
This film tells the story of the January 23, 2002, kidnapping and
subsequent murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl
in Karachi, Pakistan. For this reviewer, the most remarkable attribute
of the movie is the tension it creates at its start and sustains until
the bitter end. Although I, like most informed Americans, knew that
Pearl was beheaded by his captors, I still sat on the edge of my seat.
The credit for this goes, first of all, to the director, Michael Winterbottom,
whose credits include last year's The Road to Guantanamo, a documentary
which resonates throughout A Mighty Heart.
Pearl's kidnappers had many possible motives for the crime. He was
American, Jewish, and a reporter for a newspaper which is as much a
symbol of American capitalism as was the World Trade Center. Midway,
the movie also hints that the Journal had turned over information
on shoe-bomber Richard Reid to the CIA. Pearl apparently thought the
source he was meeting had information about Reid's terrorist connections.
The kidnappers apparently thought at first that Pearl was CIA. Another
reason expressly given by the kidnappers in their early e-mail communications
is the treatment of Guantanamo's inmates, whose freedom they initially
The second source of the film's taut atmosphere is the city of Karachi.
Quick cuts and hand-held cameras work to place the viewer in the jammed
streets, the narrow, crowded tenement corridors, and the gloomy hovels--shoulder
to shoulder with the police and security forces racing against time
to find and rescue Pearl.
The third, and most powerful, fountain of the film's tense mood is
the bow-string tight performance of Angelina Jolie, playing Pearl's
very-pregnant wife Mariane. Jolie is a terrific actress when she wants
to be (such as in last year's The Good Shepherd, also reviewed
by me for The History Place). In A Mighty Heart she holds her
emotions in check, as she forces herself to focus on the search for
her husband and prods herself to match the energy and professionalism
of the State Department officials and Pakistani police, stride for stride.
Only when, on February 21, 2002, the delivery of a videotape leaves
no doubt about Daniel's fate, does she finally burst like a vast, swollen
dam of emotion, screaming, "No, no," over and over.
Equally engaging is the leader of the Pakistani security team, who
is known only as "The Captain." Played by Indian actor Irrfan
Khan, the Captain is the most complex character in the film. He is efficient
to the point of cruelty, using torture when it forwards his investigation,
but also appearing to be on the verge of tears when viewing the video
of Pearl's decapitation. His dilemma, as a Muslim police officer, is
concisely illustrated in an interrogation scene, when he asks his prisoner,
"Do you want to see your child again?" Unblinking, the suspect
replies, "Do you want to see your child grow up, Captain?"
The Captain shares the risks that caught up with Daniel Pearl--and he
has no Western democracy to which to retreat.
Jolie's Mariane acknowledges this dilemma in an interview prior to
leaving Pakistan for her native France. "Ten Pakistanis were also
killed last week," she tells the interviewer, who seems determined
to elicit an expression of hatred or bitterness from Pearl's widow.
Desperate for more, he follows up with, "Did you see the videotape?"
"Have you no decency?" is all Mariane replies.
In the end, we see a shot of Mariane and son Adam, born a few months
following Daniel's death, walking a street in a French town. In a voice-over
the real widow dedicates the film, based on her 2003 book about her
husband's life and death, to Adam. In this sense, the movie is a love-letter
to Adam, as much as it is a memorial to her husband. Flashbacks of the
Pearls' wedding, happy times together as newlywed lovers sharing their
journalism careers in dangerous places, and particularly the reenactment
of the night Daniel chose "Adam" for his first-born son, provide
a needed dose of warmth and hope in a film infused with the fear and
horror that are the terrorist's stock in trade.
On balance, I was left with neither hope nor fear--like Mariane, who
says during a final meeting of the rescue team, following confirmation
of Pearl's death, "If they meant to terrorize me, they failed.
I'm not terrorized." Neither was she in any way uplifted. Neither
was I. If the film carries any message, beyond its film noire thriller
quality, I suppose it must be that the grinding poverty of Karachi and
thousands of similarly impoverished, teeming cities around the world
will continue to birth desperados, as surely as young couple like the
Pearls will continue to birth their Adams.
Rated R - For language.