I saw A Mighty Heart last night, the movie about Daniel Pearl‘s abduction and murder, and I was surprised. First, I liked the movie and expected not to. Second, it was not the anti-Muslim screed I’d expected it to be. If anything was a subject made for exploitation Hollywood style it was this story. An American-Jewish reporter goes to Pakistan to report on the teeming world of Islamic extremism. He goes seemingly with an open mind and American values of inquisitiveness and tolerance. His values are met by jihadi hatred, kidnapping and ultimately beheading. Could you have any better recipe for a suspense potboiler full of leering, evil Arabs?
Yet, Michael Winterbottom the director, chooses to avoid this obvious pitfall (and he faces many others as well). He decides he is going to try to write a story about two idealistic children of the world (Daniel and Marianne Pearl) thrown into the maelstrom of third world poverty, desperation and religious hatred. Despite being tested in the deepest and most painful ways it is possible for a human to be tested, the Pearls both retain their humanity intact. This is a hopeful movie. But its hope doesn’t come cheaply or easily. It is hope wrested from violence and suffering. Perhaps this is the only type of real hope there is–hope based on adversity.
The main element of this film is confusion. Everything and everyone is a swirl of movement and emotions. Hardly anything remains in one place very long. The camera sweeps through the teeming streets of Pakistan’s fetid urban centers providing the full panoply of human energy and misery. The crowded slums actually become a character in themselves in the film. Winterbottom does this in an ingenious way. He doesn’t really have to tell you about the social conditions in third world Muslim countries that serve as the breeding ground for Islamic extremism. No characters have to engage in long conversations about it to explain it to the audience. The camera does it for you.
But there is one element I felt the filmmaker didn’t explore fully enough. You have to admit that the decision by a young American Jewish journalist to accept an assignment in Pakistan, hotbed of some of the most rabid anti-Israel, anti-western sentiment in the world, strikes one as quixotic or perhaps even nuts. Why did Pearl do it? What were his reasons for taking this assignment? What was the Wall Street Journal’s thinking in making this assignment?
I’d like to know more about Daniel Pearl. What did he believe both as a journalist, a Jew and human being. What were his private thoughts about the imams, sheikhs and jihadis he covered in Pakistan? The movie doesn’t covey much of this and I wish it did more. It would’ve explained much to me that is lacking in the motivations of the key characters.
On a less momentous note, I wish the character of the Pakistani police inspector had been more explosive and energetic. The role as written portrays a genial, humane, soft-spoken man. What about someone who shrieks, who loses his temper, who hits people, who curses, who is wily, but still retains his humanity? Personally, I think it would’ve added to the drama of the situation.
I was struck by one element of the plot. At the end in voiceover, Marianne Pearl tells us that just before he was beheaded Daniel looked into the camera and said he was a Jew and that a street in Bnei Brak (Israel) is named for his grandfather, who founded the town. This is Pearl reaching back into his Jewish soul for something he is proud of, something that will mark his life, something he can leave after his death for others to know what was important to him as he faced his fate. It was also the ultimate act of rebellion against his captors–saying to them: “you can kill a Jew, but my grandfather helped build a Jewish country and it will live on after me despite your hated and violence.”
I am grateful that A Mighty Heart didn’t lapse into parody or propaganda. It portrayed a confusing, multi-faceted event with admirable nuance and emotional complexity.