‘A Mighty Heart’ is heartbreaker

BY CATE MARQUIS, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

Everyone remembers the news reports in 2002. Jewish American journalist Daniel Pearl, working in Pakistan, was captured by terrorists and held for agonizing days before he was finally executed by his captors. The terrorists released horrifying footage of the execution, in which Pearl spoke to the camera about being Jewish before he was murdered.

One of the remarkable things about the story was the response of his wife Mariane, who refused to blame anyone but his murderers for the tragedy. Pearl’s parents followed up on this impulse by establishing a foundation to promote tolerance and reduce violence.

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A Mighty Heart is a dramatic film about the kidnapping and search for Daniel Pearl. Danny Pearl is played by Dan Futterman but the real focus of the film during this hunt is on Pearl’s wife Mariane. Mariane is played by Angelina Jolie with black curly hair, dark contacts and a French accent. The film is directed by Michael Winterbottom.

Marianne Pearl, French-born and also a journalist, was five months pregnant at the time of the kidnapping. The kidnapping takes place just before they are set to leave Pakistan. Pearl, who was working for the Wall Street Journal, goes to meet a sheik for an interview but never returns.

The film’s plot focuses on the day-by-day search for Pearl, following every blind lead and misdirection, unspooling like a mystery story. But because we already know the tragic outcome, the film takes us on a harrowing slide down a dark rabbit hole, one whose sickening end we already know.

A Mighty Heart tackles a very worthy subject but takes a very emotionally low key approach. It gives us a sense of the love between Mariane and Danny but we never really seem to get close to Mariane as Jolie plays her. We get the impression of a no-nonsense, practical journalist in Mariane, a very private person, but the studied avoidance of sentiment keeps us at too much of a distance.

We know from what they said during the kidnapping and after the murder that both Mariane and Daniel Pearl’s parents are people with a tolerant and global view, with an enormous capacity for forgiveness, refusing to blame all Pakistanis for what a few terrorists did. Although the film is filled with a diverse group of people and you get a sense of the Pearls’ tolerance, the film never really takes you inside their hearts or their heads.

While diversity is on the surface, the subtext of the film is far darker. The story takes place in 2002, when America had the sympathy of the world after 9/11, even those who traditionally were hostile, and prior to the divisiveness in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Despite this, one clearly gets the sense of Pakistan as a scary place, a place of teeming, chaotic cities where one can just be swallowed up, and certainly a place where you do not tell anyone you are Jewish. Some of the Pakistanis in the story go to heroic lengths to help, but just as likely others in the government are extremists. Prejudices and hatreds are everywhere. There is one incident in the film when the police discover that the woman the Pearls are staying with is from India, triggering absurd claims that the kidnapping is a hoax by India to embarrass Pakistan.

Much of the footage is shadowy, with dark alleyways and half lit rooms. Violence seems around every corner, with police shootouts and torture. Apart from the friends of Danny and Mariane in flashbacks, we see no laughter. Where we do see any women, it is only in daylight and they are wrapped in burkas.

While the topic is worthy, one wishes it would have taken us on a more spiritual journey, as it occasionally hints it might. It would have been better to get to know more about both Danny and Mariane before the tragedy, to uncover that mighty heart the title suggests. Instead, director Michael Winterbottom makes the film into a mystery whose conclusion we already know. That choice makes this a grim, even horrifying film, more horror film than the uplifting and inspirational journey that the title seems to promise.

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