A mighty letdown

BY sevanti ninan| IN Media Practice | 12/11/2007
How did they take a story as dramatic and unforgettable as that of reporter Daniel Pearl, and reduce it to a story about his pretty wife?
SEVANTI NINAN goes to the movies to check out A Mighty Heart.

A Mighty Heart was released in India at a time when Pakistan, where the story is set, is in the grip of a emergency, civil liberties curtailed, rebellion on the border, its political future uncertain. It is the story of a journalist at a time when journalism in this part of the world is under siege. Indian critics have given it generous reviews, it seemed a timely film and worth a visit. Certainly a film which would explore the moral dilemmas that media confronts in terrorism.


The film¿s name  is drawn from the title of the book written by Mariane Pearl. It suggests that the film is about Daniel Pearl, the man. Instead it turns out to be a whodunit, a suspenseful uncovering of what happened to this scribe in search of a story. Pakistan is a backdrop, a  seething blur of intrigue, traffic jams and swarthy faces. It confirms every stereotype about the country, particularly at this point of time. If the film is about any one thing, more than others, it is about the poignancy of a  pregnant woman journalist, seeking to unravel the mystery of her kidnapped husband. Angela Jolie as Mariane, looks delectable and dominates the story.


Which, when you consider the opportunities the canvas presented, is such a pity.  All an American audience is likely to take away from it is an almost-soppy tale of a white woman who loved and lost in a land rife with terrorism, but did not lose her compassion. After all she does kiss the maid¿s little daughter tenderly when she is leaving.  It tells you  nothing of what a journalist like Daniel Pearl was seeking to explore, or what moved him to risk his life just months after 9/11 occurred.


Its director,  Michael Winterbottom, has made political statements in his earlier films. But the complexity of terrorism, or of the landscape it inhabits, seems to elude him here. Pearl was killed while investigating a story in Karachi, Pakistan, on ¿¿shoe bomber¿¿ Richard Reid in early 2002, a man with a link to Al Qaeda. But in Winterbottom¿s caricature of a plot, Pearl is killed because he is an American and a Jew and his killers hate both. There is no time to explore the whys of terror, three fourths of the movie is about the mechanics of the search, the gathering of clues and raiding of suspects. An American diplomat, the American editor of the paper Pearl worked for, an Indian colleague in the Karachi bureau of the Wall Street Journal,  the head of Pakistan¿s counter terrorism outfit--all these people hustle in and out of the camera frame, stepping around an increasingly desperate Marianne.


You could in some ways treat this as being a film about media too. A Pakistani man in one of the early scenes says come on, you know all American journalists here are CIA agents. Dan Futterman who  plays Daniel Pearl resembles him but offers no clues about what moved him, or made his such a mighty heart.  The director, drawing on the personal bits in the book, tries to bring in more than a dot of mush. Flashbacks to their wedding, then to his communing with his unborn child, their time together in Mumbai where he worked for the WSJ. Pearl the husband seems to interest Winterbottom more than Pearl the scribe who probed until he was killed.


The media comes in for occasional, scathing swipes. They rush to report that his body has been found without waiting to check the veracity of the information, she does her interviews with CNN giving them lines which satisfy them. And in the final interview with an unnamed network she is asked whether she has seen the video ( of her husband¿s beheading).  She retorts, "Have you no decency?" and the anchor hastily concludes the interview.    


In the same interview Marianne Pearl says understands that terrorism finds its victims everywhere, and that in the month that her Danny was killed 10 Pakistanis too were killed.  She says the kidnappers have failed to terrorise her---¿I am not terrorised.¿  This is about the only place in the film where she (and the film¿s director) hint at  a wider perspective. But the transition from wrenching personal loss to a grieving awareness is too pat. We do not really see it evolving. Nor does it develop. Because after this we go off into recaps of their romance and life together.


 How did they take a  story as dramatic and unforgettable as that of Daniel Pearl, and reduce it to a story about his pretty wife?



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