Front-row seat to terror The Daniel Pearl story, hampered by what we already know

Posted: June 22, 2007

Like "United 93," the docudrama "A Mighty Heart" tiptoes through a terrorist atrocity with a careful detachment.

"A Mighty Heart" is even more circumspect, since it re-creates the circumstances surrounding the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, but shows us nothing of his abduction, captivity or infamous beheading.

Instead, "A Mighty Heart" follows Pearl's wife Mariane (Angelina Jolie) - her misgivings about Pearl's determination to interview a jihadist imam, her anxious moments when he does not return, her anguish at learning of his kidnapping, her horror at learning how it all ended.

"A Mighty Heart" makes a respectful show of her composure and moral self-control - in a public statement after the murder, she takes a very high road. She links her husband's murder to a world that allows misery to thrive. She says that terrorism arises from poverty and suffering and inequality, and nobly observes that Pearl was only one of several people kidnapped and killed that month by terrorists in Pakistan.

In real life, with the war on terror at its most bellicose, this was a moment of very high drama. In "A Mighty Heart," the moment lands with a mighty thud.

By that point, the movie has lulled us nearly to sleep with its puzzling focus on fruitless attempts by Pakistani police and FBI and American embassy personnel to find and rescue Pearl (Jolie does not showboat - she's very much part of the ensemble).

Director Michael Winterbottom works very hard to re-create the chaos in the Pearls' Karachi apartment - crammed full of investigators, Wall Street Journal personnel, friends, neighbors, all surrounded by nosy TV crews.

The hand-held cameras, the ambient sound (thanks again, Robert Altman) attempt to re-create the you-are-there feeling of desperation and uncertainty, but . . . we are not there. And we know Pearl will not be saved. And the docudrama feels uncomfortably like pantomime.

The technique worked in "United 93," on the front lines with captives and captors, but not here, where Pearl is mostly a flashback, a nice fellow whose death Mariane can rise above.

Mariane Pearl (pregnant at the time of the murder) wrote "A Mighty Heart" to explain Daniel to their son, Adam. This movie, adapted from her book, tells you almost nothing about him.

You get a much clearer and more meaningful picture of Pearl in the plodding but effective HBO documentary "The Journalist and the Jihadi." You see Pearl as a quintessential product of a liberal society - fascinated by other cultures, determined not only to travel the world but to understand it. Though Pearl's family helped build Israel, he fell unreservedly in love with a French-speaking Cuban woman, a Buddhist. He was a musician who took his violin with him around the world, improvising jazz sessions with musicians from different disciplines.

His open-mindedness and his curiosity about other cultures (his dispatches from Pakistan were searching and objective) were, in a sense, his undoing. He was blindsided in the end by the monomania of a group of thugs who saw him only as a Jew, eligible to have his throat slit.

"A Mighty Heart" looks at the contemporary context of Pearl's murder - tumultuous police-state Pakistan, terrorism, rendition, the way each feeds on the other.

What shocked the world about Pearl's murder, though, was the medieval image flickering on our laptops. The robes, the raised dagger, a man slaughtered like a goat - the depressing persistence of ancient hatreds. *

Produced by Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Andrew Eaton, directed by Michael Winterbottom, written by John Orloff, music by Harry Escot and Molly Nyman, distributed by Paramount Pictures.

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