The History Place - Movie Review

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 demand.

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.

Jim Castagnera is the Associate Provost and Associate Legal Counsel at Rider University; he also is a 2007 Academic Fellow on Terrorism of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

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