For years after the September 11, 2001 attacks, Hollywood hesitated to make a movie based on the dramatic and tragic events of that day. Such a movie, it was feared, would hurt the sentiments of the families of the victims as well as fail at the box office. Only five years after the attacks, did Oliver Stone release his World Trade Centre and Paul Greengrass make the superior United 93, the story of the one plane that didn’t hit its target after passengers overpowered the hijackers. The connection between 9/11 and A Mighty Heart, is more elliptical than the aforementioned two movies. The movie is based on the memoirs of the same name by Marianne Pearl, the wife of Daniel Pearl, who was kidnapped and beheaded by militants in Afghanistan in 2002. The movie, bankrolled by Paramount, will undoubtedly be seen by some as the ability of a country to make money out of one of its worst tragedies.
Pearl, who is called Danny by everyone in the movie, is the South Asia bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal and is based in Mumbai. He arrives in Karachi, a day after 9/11, and stays back to investigate the hidden links between the Al Qaeda and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. The bustling port of Karachi, the “frontier against the war on terror”, as Marianne describes it in one media interview shown in the movie, is one of the protagonists of movie.
Director Michael Winterbottom (an unfortunate name, really) plunges his camera into the densely populated streets of the Pakistani port, recording its sounds and turning its atmosphere into an inevitable part of the movie.
Angelina Jolie, one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood, stars as Marianne Pearl. Her husband, actor Brad Pitt, is one of the movie’s producers. It’s ironic that serious reportage of current world events like say, the Iraq war, often take backstage because of the coverage of Brangelina, a fact that many in the audience will not miss.
Jolie plays Marianne as a white woman even though in reality the latter was a French-speaking African American. The murder of Daniel Pearl was one of the biggest media stories post 9/11 and served to illustrate the dangers journalists faced while covering terror. The kidnappers use of the Internet to make their demands, show photos of Daniel on his knees a gun cocked to his head, and even allege that he was a CIA spy was probably the first time that the cyberspace was tainted in such a fashion.
Daniel is not kidnapped because the militants fear that his stories might bring them harm. According to the film, he is kidnapped just because he is an American. As Marianne mentions in her memoir, 230 other journalists were killed during the Iraq war, which followed the toppling of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. This is partly because of their risky work and partly because they are targeted by terrorists.
The movie, which is tightly edited and shot in pseudo-documentary style, plunges into the narrative right from shot one. After a few file shots of the offensive against the Taliban, the film shows Marianne and Daniel Pearl, adequately played by Dan Futterman, covering the events after the war.
While showing the day of the kidnapping, Winterbottom cuts between the two main characters, Daniel and his wife. The sequence when the couple is travelling in two separate cars to different destinations is an example of how to take a perfectly ordinary scene and cut it in such a fashion that it creates maximum tension.
Even though Jolie is one of the biggest pin-up stars in the world, her acting skills aren’t far behind her looks. Ironically, it’s the good looks that stand in the way of her performance as Marianne Pearl from becoming truly outstanding. Winterbottom uses close-ups sparingly and even in those it’s impossible not to detect the actress beneath her façade. She plays Marianne as being a levelheaded wife who does her best to improve her husband’s chances of being freed. “Totally silly,” she chides herself after bursting into tears upon hearing that the militants are alleging that her husband is a CIA agent. Though the movie plays out with like a thrilling police procedural, it works best when it’s a politically charged drama. It’s also in many ways a love story. The movie shows Daniel deeply in love with his wife and ending every phone call to her with the words, ‘I love you’.
Unlike the earlier 9/11 movies, this one comes with the acknowledgment that terror is often linked to poverty. The elevation of the Daniel Pearl story into a tragedy is a testimonial to Winterbottom’s abilities.
There is no shortage of Indian actors in the movie. Irrfan Khan plays the head of the Pakistan counterintelligence unit; Archie Punjabi is another Wall Street Journal reporter, whose house virtually becomes the war room in the search for Daniel; and Aly Khan plays Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, the man responsible for the kidnapping and beheading. The latter two have it easy. It’s Irrfan, in the plum role of the character called Captain, who stands out. His acting is a true delight to watch.
Much of the violence is not shown in the movie. Daniel’s beheading and the way his body was cut into10 pieces is not shown. We only get to see the shocked reactions of the persons watching the videotape of the beheading. In fact, after his kidnapping Daniel is never shown as if he has gone into another dimension, never to return.
They say journalism is about facts and art is about truth. A Mighty Heart tries to go beyond the facts and access the truth.