A Mighty Heart

Published June 27, 2007

Of course, no one should have anything but the deepest sympathy for the family of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal’s reporter who was kidnapped and gruesomely murdered in Pakistan five years ago and who is the subject of Michael Winterbottom’s fine new film, A Mighty Heart. Yet I hope that they and others will forgive me for asking the perhaps indelicate question why it is that, of all the Americans who have been killed by Islamicist fanatics in the last few years, he is the only one (so far) about whom a movie has been made? Why is there a special poignancy to his fate that is denied both to soldiers, who have chosen to fight against the jihadist menace, and to non-journalist victims of jihad whose innocence — in, for example, just turning up to work one day at the World Trade Center or the Pentagon — might seem to be less complicated than poor Mr. Pearl’s.

Well, the media celebrate their own. In their eyes, the journalist can combine the nobility of the soldier — “an ordinary hero” as the film puts it of Daniel Pearl — with the purity of the innocent because the mythology of the contemporary media culture insists on placing the journalist above the battle. The whole point of him is that he doesn’t take sides, so it seems particularly unfair when one side insists on treating him like an enemy combatant. In Mr. Pearl’s case, this sense of unfairness was exacerbated by the fact that it seems to have been his Jewishness that inspired his kidnappers to kill him. Not that they couldn’t have killed him just for being an American as well as just for being a Jew, but the combination of the two made it more likely. And both are accidents of birth. Pearl was not only beheaded, he was discriminated against!

All this is not to say that his is not a powerful story, or that it is not powerfully told in A Mighty Heart. It’s just that it’s mainly as an absence that he is present in it. For Mr. Winterbottom very cleverly tells the story so much from the point of view of the murdered man’s wife, Marianne (Angelina Jolie), that we know almost no more of what happens to him, or when it happens, than she does. Her last glimpse of “Danny” (Dan Futterman) comes as he is getting into a taxi outside their home in Karachi. We follow him a little further — until the taxi drops him at the restaurant somewhere in the vast, sprawling Pakistani city, where he was to have met a source for a story he was doing on the shoe-bomber, Richard Reid. But the source isn’t there, and that’s when the camera leaves him, wondering whether to wait or to go back home and aware, as we must be, of his vulnerability, all alone in this strange place.

We are not, that is, shown the kidnapping, nor anything more of his captivity than Marianne learns from a videotape sent by the kidnappers. Nor, it must go without saying, are we shown his murder. You might be tempted to wonder what is the point of such reticence, since the audience will already know — as in the film, of course, Marianne doesn’t — what is happening. But there is some method to the cinematic madness. By not attempting to imagine what he does not know, Mr. Winterbottom forces our imaginations to run wild in a way not entirely dissimilar, I imagine, from the way the imaginations of the victim’s loved ones do in such circumstances. One’s chief impressions of the film are of claustrophobia and helplessness, the uselessness of people’s sympathy and hopelessness, for the most part, of the Pakistani authorities, in spite of their willingness to use torture to get information. But then that’s very much like what Mrs. Pearl herself must have felt at the time.

At any rate, it helps to give us a powerful sense of empathy with her as her imaginative life whisks her back and forth between the desperate search for Danny in the present and flashbacks to the happy scenes of their courtship and marriage that naturally increase the poignancy and thus the sense of urgency of the search. In one such tender scene, just before his kidnapping on the eve of what was to have been their departure from Pakistan, Danny fondles Marianne’s pregnant belly and says, “Amazing how you can love someone you never met.” It’s not so amazing that the film also makes us care about the Pearls. And, though Danny Pearl doesn’t have quite the innocence of a babe in the womb, we may begin to think so. He certainly has something of its helplessness and, therefore, the same ability to inspire solicitude.

Historically, the expression “a mighty heart” carries the connotation of courage and intrepidity in battle of the bravest soldiers and would be expected to refer to Daniel Pearl. In this film, however, Braveheart is mostly off-screen and the expression seems instead to refer to the large capacity for feeling and suffering of his wife. There is a huge cultural shift behind this apparent continuity of heroic language.

Moreover, as I suggested at the outset, there is a political dimension to this innocence that it may seem somewhat lacking in delicacy to point out. There are in the film implied criticisms of the Wall Street Journal for sharing information on matters of national security with the CIA because this increases the danger to Danny. The kidnappers must see themselves as vindicated in their belief that he is little better than an agent of the CIA — or of Mossad — himself. Not that we would or should care any less about what happens to him if he were, but it’s his not being one which creates the kick of indignation and pathos that gets a film like this one made.

It makes sense for Marianne to resent anything that materially increases the danger to her husband, but those of us watching a cinematic re-creation have less of an excuse for objecting to a blurring of the line between the determined neutrality of the journalist and the unwilling engagement in the war on terror of his fellow countrymen. For it seems to me that that neutrality is not a real option. To be a journalist devoted to free inquiry, as to be an American devoted to other sorts of civic freedoms, is already to be enlisted in the war against those who would destroy those freedoms. It would better serve Daniel Pearl’s memory to admit that his sad fate has made this clear.

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