In 2002, while investigating possible connections between Richard “Shoe Bomber” Reid and militant Islamic elements in Pakistan, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl left for an interview with radical cleric Mubarik Ali Gilani and never returned. Less than a month later, a video surfaced showing Pearl’s decapitation by fundamentalists. Pearl was in Karachi with his pregnant wife Mariane, herself a freelance journalist. After his disappearance and throughout the subsequent investigation, Mariane helped coordinate the efforts of the police and her fellow journalists. After all was said and done, she wrote the book “A Mighty Heart” about her husband and the events leading up to his death.
Shot documentary style – much like “United 93” – by director Michael Winterbottom, “A Mighty Heart” traces the events of January and February, 2002, as the United States and our supposed allies in Pakistan looked for Pearl’s kidnappers. The approach is effective, since what we have is less a biological portrait than it is a police procedural…sort of a “Law and Order: Karachi.” We’re privy to the investigations of the Pakistani police and intelligence services, headed up by “Captain” (Irfan Khan), the head intelligence agent who pursues leads in the straightforward and brutal fashion so particular to third world dictatorships.
Which isn’t to say we learn nothing about the once happy couple. Daniel (Dan Futterman) and Mariane (Angelina Jolie) are shown getting married, honeymooning, and planning for their child’s arrival, just like any normal couple. It’s only after Daniel’s kidnapping that we’re plunged into the nightmarish world of political abduction, made worse by Daniel’s Jewish heritage and the unavoidable problem this causes in one of the global hotbeds of Islamic fundamentalism.
What’s a bit surprising is the relatively small role Mariane appears to play in all this. The woman is understandably distraught, on top of being extremely pregnant, so her duties in the film fall largely into the category of coordinating the journalistic efforts (she’s a reporter herself, don’t forget) and berating the people searching for Danny when they drag their feet. Jolie is perfectly capable of this much, even if she looks like the most emaciated expectant mother this side of Eritrea, and even if you can’t escape the feeling she’s hoping the accent leads to an Oscar nomination. Meanwhile, Futterman is quite believable as Pearl, but this is a case where portraying the deceased as anything less than a saint is going to raise some hackles.
Winterbottom also runs the risk of alienating those who might not appreciate the depiction of our law enforcement personnel as something less than competent. In “A Mighty Heart,” the FBI are particularly ineffectual, while the point man in the diplomatic effort – U.S. Consulate officer Randall Bennett (Will Patton) – seems more enamored of the fact that the Pakistan officials can use cattle prods and rubber hoses than he is in doing any actual diplomacy.
“A Mighty Heart” illuminates the events behind Pearl’s abduction, and yet…Mariane Pearl’s attempts to extract a message of hope from all this fall flat. It’s great that she was able to write a book and continue her life after her husband’s murder, but all I came away with was a sense of futility that this kind of s**t continues in the 21st century, and that even our alleged allies are hesitant to give their full attention to a foreign policy crisis involving a Jew. The movie is engrossing and well-acted throughout (especially Khan), but ultimately leaves us less optimistic about the prospects for peace.