Ruminations on A Mighty Heart

As God as my witness, I thought Mariane Pearl was black.I soon came to realize that I was mistaken, I must be mistaken, because there is no way that Angelina Jolie could ever pull a Liz Taylor-as-Cleopatra. Not Angelina Jolie, not in this day and age. These were my thoughts as I went cringing into the theater to see A Mighty Heart.

A Mighty Heart is the true story of Daniel Pearl (Dan Futterman), the Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped and murdered by terrorists in Pakistan in 2002, and his wife Mariane (Angelina Jolie), who spends the better part of five weeks trying to track him down.

To be honest, I was expecting a Lifetime channel-type film that focuses on Mariane and her struggle for “closure” or some such thing after the brutal murder of her husband. Instead I was treated to a bare-bones, yet touching and oddly suspenseful retelling of the search for Daniel Pearl.

I say “oddly suspenseful” because, of course, we all know what happens at the end of this movie. There is no hope for a happy ending; when all is said and done Daniel Pearl is beheaded. I knew this, and yet I still had the same feeling that I had the first time I saw Hitchcock’s masterpiece, Rope. The crime was already done, but I was beside myself to see it play out.

In January of 2002, Mariane said goodbye to her husband for the last time. He was on his way to meet with a source for a story about Richard Reid, the infamous “shoe bomber”. When Daniel doesn’t return home that night Mariane checks the source’s e-mails and phone numbers, all of which turn out to be bogus. She now knows that Daniel is not coming home.

Soon afterward Mariane becomes actively involved in the investigation, as she was a journalist herself and felt that she could provide some insight that the authorities could not. Her home becomes a command post for all those involved: Daniel and Mariane’s friend and colleague Asra (Archie Panjabi), Daniel‘s colleagues at the Wall Street Journal, the FBI, and its Pakistani counterpart, the Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI). The ISI’s counter-terrorism branch is led by a desperate, politically pressured and sympathetic man known only as Captain (Irrfan Khan).

The ordeal raises a host of collateral issues for the other players. Asra is labeled an “Indian spy” and is shunned by her Pakistani boyfriend and his family. Captain must save his country from international embarrassment, yet he barely breaks a sweat even when he tortures his prisoners. He doesn’t find joy in the act; he softly cajoles the suspects into telling what they know. All of this goes on while Daniel’s family in California stays heartbreakingly optimistic about his chances for survival.

The fact that Mariane is pregnant during this ordeal is a stunning testament to her character. I don’t mind telling you that if I were in her shoes I’d be spending my day alternately puking, staying in bed and being hysterical. No one would have blamed her if she had done that, especially after the two or three false reports of Daniel‘s body being found. Instead she remains calm and resourceful. She only has a few minor, self-contained meltdowns. Eventually she is told that Daniel is dead, and there is no doubt this time because they had all seen the videotape of his murder. Yes, she loses it, but she pulls herself together long enough to give interviews to insensitive reporters and serve a thank-you-for-your-help dinner party to her friends. The woman is, if Jolie‘s portrayal is to be believed, a rock. A little too much of a rock, perhaps, but then again she didn’t really have a choice. After all, bouts of hysteria do not go well with pregnancies, or with motherhood for that matter. In the end she tells us that she had to face everything, to know all the details of Daniel’s kidnapping and murder. Once she had done that she could go on with her life and be the kind of mother she needed to be.

Since this wasn’t a family movie I didn’t bring my usual assistant movie critic, my eight-year-old son. I did bring my 38-year-old brother, who thinks that Angelina Jolie might score an Oscar nomination for her performance. It’s probably too early to tell about that, but I must say that I’m glad she found her way to this film. It serves as a nice reminder that she is much more that a paparazzi-stalked Britney. She obviously wants to be a serious person, and to be seen as a serious person. I hope this movie makes people more interested in her politics and values, and less interested in her tattoos. For my money though, I’d give the award to Irrfan Khan. His performance was beautifully understated and melancholy. If you ever get the urge to hug a Pakistani intelligence officer, Captain is your man.

As I was walking across town to the theater to see A Mighty Heart I was observing the people around me and lamenting the sad state of affairs in New York. It seemed to me that us “real” New Yorkers, the natives, had finally lost the turf war with the yuppified out-of-town transplants. I wonder now if I would have sneered if I had passed the likes of Daniel and Mariane on the street that day. As sympathetic as they were, there was something so horribly colonial about the two Westerners living in a pretty little villa while surrounded by dirt-eating Pakistanis. I also can’t help but wonder what Daniel was thinking when he decided to meet up with a gang of jihadists when the so-called “war on terror” was at its peak. I felt queasy when a local official lectured him on how the Jews were responsible for 9/11; when he was alone in a hotel room with his captors a few hours later, still ignorant of their real plan, my stomach dropped. Was Daniel Pearl brave? Crazy? Naïve? Irresponsible? There is a lot of talk nowadays about embedded journalists and such, and someone does have to report the news, but I’m not convinced that it should be done by a man with a pregnant wife at home.

I suppose we all have our choices to make, which brings me back to Mariane’s ambiguous racial identity. In the grand scheme of things it probably doesn’t matter what Mariane is, but the sad fact is that Daniel’s race could very well have been his undoing. Daniel was a Jew in a country where many people, quite frankly, hated Jews. He was asked at one point if he was a Christian. Should he have denied his culture? Would it have mattered if he had, or was the fact that he was a Western journalist enough to get his head chopped off? Did the thought even cross his mind? Of course this is point purely academic for those of us who couldn’t deny what we are even if we wanted to. Still, I wonder what I would have done.

One thing is for certain, Daniel and Mariane Pearl were cut from an altogether different cloth than I was. Everything that they did during this nightmare was the opposite of what I would have done. I haven’t decided whether or not that’s a good thing.


~ by mwench on October 14, 2007.

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