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Posts For: July 4, 2007

A Mighty Heart

So respectfully does A Mighty Heart, Michael Winterbottom’s film about the death of the journalist Daniel Pearl, treat its subject that criticism seems indecent, like rebuking someone for their tears at a funeral. It depicts Pearl’s kidnapping in January 2002 and the anguish of his French wife Mariane—then six-months pregnant with their first child—waiting in torment for news of him. The outcome of this vigil is no secret: Pearl was beheaded a week after his kidnapping, although another three weeks would pass before the videotape of his murder was recovered. Mariane’s book about this experience, Un coeur invaincu (literally, “an undefeated heart”), serves as the basis for Winterbottom’s often poignant film.

One can see why the story appealed to Hollywood, or—to be precise—to Angelina Jolie. It is difficult to imagine a better role for an actress aspiring to real gravitas. Mariane Pearl has become, in the years since her husband’s death, a kind of secular saint. (Slate’s review aptly called the film “a hagiographic chronicle of the martyrdom of Mariane Pearl.”) In the wake of her husband’s murder, Mariane refused to stoop to public hatred or to become a shill for any political cause, devoting her energy instead to creating the Daniel Pearl Foundation, a philanthropic organization of deliberately ecumenical scope. But if Mariane Pearl eschews politics of any color, the film about her does not, to its ultimate detriment.

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So respectfully does A Mighty Heart, Michael Winterbottom’s film about the death of the journalist Daniel Pearl, treat its subject that criticism seems indecent, like rebuking someone for their tears at a funeral. It depicts Pearl’s kidnapping in January 2002 and the anguish of his French wife Mariane—then six-months pregnant with their first child—waiting in torment for news of him. The outcome of this vigil is no secret: Pearl was beheaded a week after his kidnapping, although another three weeks would pass before the videotape of his murder was recovered. Mariane’s book about this experience, Un coeur invaincu (literally, “an undefeated heart”), serves as the basis for Winterbottom’s often poignant film.

One can see why the story appealed to Hollywood, or—to be precise—to Angelina Jolie. It is difficult to imagine a better role for an actress aspiring to real gravitas. Mariane Pearl has become, in the years since her husband’s death, a kind of secular saint. (Slate’s review aptly called the film “a hagiographic chronicle of the martyrdom of Mariane Pearl.”) In the wake of her husband’s murder, Mariane refused to stoop to public hatred or to become a shill for any political cause, devoting her energy instead to creating the Daniel Pearl Foundation, a philanthropic organization of deliberately ecumenical scope. But if Mariane Pearl eschews politics of any color, the film about her does not, to its ultimate detriment.

A Mighty Heart begins on what was to have been Daniel Pearl’s last day in Pakistan, as he heads off for an interview with a certain Sheikh Gilani, who may know something about the shoe-bomber Richard Reid. The interview was a ruse; from this moment we never see Pearl again—just as Mariane never did—other than in flashbacks. We remain with her in her rented house in Karachi as the storm gathers around her. American and Pakistani intelligence officers descend, followed by colleagues from the Wall Street Journal.

Two of these unwanted guests come to loom large. One is the chief American intelligence officer, a creepy but genial presence played by Will Patton (whose geniality makes him all the creepier). The other is the Captain, a cryptic Pakistani security chief, at once an enormously sympathetic and shockingly brutal figure (we see him routinely slapping citizens who fail to answers his questions quickly enough). They alternately question Mariane and comfort her, making her house a kind of combination war room and support group.

Given Mariane’s essentially passive role, the principal challenge in playing her is convincingly to convey her emotional state. And this Jolie does exceptionally well, offering not so much an imitation of anguish as a simulacrum of it. She falters only once. When Mariane learns the fate of her husband, she withdraws into her room and gives up an agonized scream. It is a jarring, near-histrionic note in a film otherwise unfailingly low-key. It is not, however, the excesses of Jolie that mar this film, but those of its director.

In a sense, A Mighty Heart is two films. There is Mariane Pearl’s own story, the first-person account drawn from her memoirs. Although it is re-created with a large cast, the point of view is entirely solitary. Our perspective is identical to hers: we watch with her as her Karachi home fills with well-meaning strangers; we experience her remoteness and detachment. But this first-person story is embedded in another film, one that depicts the desperate police search for the sender of the e-mails that entrapped Pearl. Though the search takes up considerable screen time, it is no mere police procedural. Winterbottom’s framework consists of an impressionistic montage: we see shards of interrogation and vignettes of broken-down doors and midnight arrests, but not in such a way that we can follow the investigation’s track. Of course, we can hardly expect Mariane, who was not privy to police matters, and who in any event was in a state of shock, to provide a forensic account of the investigation. It is therefore not surprising that these scenes refuse to come into focus, and remain as dreamlike as the flashbacks of her husband.

From a dramaturgical point of view, these scenes are a necessary counterpoint to those with Mariane, which are bereft of explicit action; one can see why Winterbottom felt his film needed them. But in his treatment of the investigation, Winterbottom shows scenes and events that Mariane could not possibly have witnessed. Which raises a question: to what end did he interpolate them?

The fact that the most egregious of these scenes is one of torture may point toward an answer. A hapless low-level conspirator is suspended by his hands, while the enigmatic Captain quietly asks him questions, nodding his head slightly from time to time, requesting something that causes the captive to scream. The situation at this point is urgent—could information be extracted that might reveal Pearl’s whereabouts before he is killed?—but the Captain is unhurried, even ominously gentle. The scene is framed carefully so that we see neither the tormentor, nor precisely what he is doing, which is as it should be, from both a moral and an artistic point of view.

If any political moral is to be drawn from this film, it is to be found in this scene. What precisely is Winterbottom saying here? That such proceedings, appalling as they are, are a regrettable necessity? Far more accurate is Manohla Dargis’s observation, in the New York Times, that “Mr. Pearl would have probably been appalled that this outrage was committed on his behalf; the point is, we should be too.”

While Winterbottom feels free to show a scene of police torture, he refrains from even an oblique depiction of Pearl’s death. He doubly insulates the viewer from it, showing only the faces of Pearl’s friends as they watch his death on video. This omission may have been intended (partially, at least) as a kindness to Mariane Pearl. But its political overtones cannot be missed: Winterbottom assigned the film’s most disturbing images to the American and Pakistani investigators seeking to free Pearl. Pearl’s actual murderers are given no visual presence whatsoever. The most we see of them is a few of their cringing and pathetic flunkies, caught up unwittingly in the madness of contemporary global politics. We see them only, in other words, as victims themselves—as we see Mariane and Daniel Pearl.

In the end, A Mighty Heart belongs to the same moral universe as Oliver Stone’s 2006 film World Trade Center, which looked sympathetically at the victims of terrorism—but could not summon up the stamina to look honestly at the terrorists themselves. For Winterbottom, one of the most talented filmmakers alive, and one of the most concerned with moral complexity, this omission is all the more glaring.

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A Tale of Two “Doctors’ Plots”

What is the difference between an Islamic Doctors’ Plot and a Jewish Doctors’ Plot?

It sounds like the opening line of a joke, but it’s not.

So far, in the Islamic Doctors’ Plot now being unraveled by Scotland Yard, eight people have been arrested in connection with two failed car-bombings in London and a third at the Glasgow airport. Seven are doctors, and the eighth is a laboratory technician. They are all suspected of planning or participating in a mass casualty attack, using gas canisters, gasoline, and nails to inflict maximum carnage on innocents civilians, as part of a broader worldwide campaign of terror in the name of Islam.

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What is the difference between an Islamic Doctors’ Plot and a Jewish Doctors’ Plot?

It sounds like the opening line of a joke, but it’s not.

So far, in the Islamic Doctors’ Plot now being unraveled by Scotland Yard, eight people have been arrested in connection with two failed car-bombings in London and a third at the Glasgow airport. Seven are doctors, and the eighth is a laboratory technician. They are all suspected of planning or participating in a mass casualty attack, using gas canisters, gasoline, and nails to inflict maximum carnage on innocents civilians, as part of a broader worldwide campaign of terror in the name of Islam.

We do not yet know the nature of the evidence against all of those arrested, and presumably there is the possibility that some of them might be innocent of the charges on which they are being held. But, of course, the evidence against one of them, Dr. Khalid Ahmed, who was shouting “Allah, Allah” as he punched a British policeman and was burned over much of his body while attempting to pour gasoline on his burning Jeep Cherokee as it was lodged in the entranceway of Glasgow airport, would appear to be rather strong.

The Jewish Doctors’ Plot is another kettle of fish altogether. On January 13, 1953, the Soviet Communist party newspaper Pravda published an article under the headline “Vicious Spies and Killers under the Mask of Academic Physicians.” It told of a vast plot by a group of doctors who “deliberately and viciously undermined their patients’ health by making incorrect diagnoses, and then killed them with bad and incorrect treatments.”

The participants in the plot, continued Pravda,

were bought by American intelligence. They were recruited by a branch-office of American intelligence—the international Jewish bourgeois-nationalist organization called “Joint.” The filthy face of this Zionist spy organization, covering up their vicious actions under the mask of charity, is now completely revealed . . . .

Unmasking the gang of poisoner-doctors struck a blow against the international Jewish Zionist organization. . . . Now all can see what sort of philanthropists and “friends of peace” hid beneath the sign-board of “Joint.”

The victims of this alleged terrorist conspiracy were high-ranking Soviet officials. All but two of the nine doctors who were arrested for their part in the purported plot were Jewish.

The arrests were evidently the opening salvo of a vast new purge that was only interrupted by the death of Joseph Stalin on March 5, 1953. By April 1953, the charges against the doctors were retracted and a handful of mid- and low-level officials were arrested and executed for having fabricated them. The high-ranking associates of Stalin who had actually set the campaign in motion at his behest escaped unscathed. Seven of the doctors were released. Two had already perished while incarcerated. A fascinating “top-secret” CIA analysis of the episode, produced in the days when the CIA knew what it was doing, has just been declassified and made available on the web.

A notable sidelight is the reaction at the time—actually, the non-reaction—of the British medical establishment to the obviously trumped-up charges. As the Israeli scholar A. Mark Clarfield has pointed out, neither the British Medical Journal nor the Lancet, the country’s two leading medical journals, deigned to make any mention of the episode until after the doctors were already exonerated.

After the seven doctors finally were set free, the British Medical Journal issued an absurd statement, noting that as “doctors we felt disturbed by the assault upon the professional integrity of our Russian colleagues” and especially disturbed “by the probable effect of the accusation on the trust patients universally have in the doctor-patient relationship.”

Another notable sidelight is the contemporary reaction of CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, to the Islamic Doctors’ Plot. It has posted on its website a statement from the Association of Muslim Health Officials that juxtaposes the events in the United Kingdom with a number of other greater and lesser crimes, including “unethical research for profit”:

If found to be guilty, these men will not be the first doctors to plan or perform heinous acts. If British justice system finds them guilty of these crimes, we put them in a pantheon of heinous physicians performing acts that go against the grain of all we believe in as Muslim Health Professionals. Josef Mengele, Mike Swango, Harold Shipman, and in the UK, John B Adams are small list of psychopaths with medical degrees who have harmed countless numbers of people in defiance of their professional oaths. We make no difference between health professionals who use their skills contrary to the human rights of any individual. Whether it is serial murder or genocide, medical torture for the military, or unethical research for profit, these people are not from us and we are not from them.

A question that emerges from all of this: is the world better off facing an Islamic Doctors’ Plot or a Jewish Doctors’ Plot? I doubt CAIR will be holding a contest to answer this question anytime soon.

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Fighting in the Streets

It may not be worth the billions in dues that we pay, but the United Nations does perform a few useful functions, among them producing some interesting reports. The latest of these is The State of World Population 2007 from the United Nations Population Fund. The news is summarized in the first few paragraphs of the introduction:

In 2008, the world reaches an invisible but momentous milestone: For the first time in history, more than half its human population, 3.3 billion people, will be living in urban areas. By 2030, this is expected to swell to almost 5 billion. Many of the new urbanites will be poor. Their future, the future of cities in developing countries, the future of humanity itself, all depend very much on decisions made now in preparation for this growth.

While the world’s urban population grew very rapidly (from 220 million to 2.8 billion) over the 20th century, the next few decades will see an unprecedented scale of urban growth in the developing world. This will be particularly notable in Africa and Asia where the urban population will double between 2000 and 2030: That is, the accumulated urban growth of these two regions during the whole span of history will be duplicated in a single generation. By 2030, the towns and cities of the developing world will make up 81 percent of urban humanity.

The report notes, even-handedly, that the implications of this shift for social policy are mixed: “The current concentration of poverty, slum growth, and social disruption in cities does paint a threatening picture. Yet no country in the industrial age has ever achieved significant economic growth without urbanization. Cities concentrate poverty, but they also represent the best hope of escaping it.” The rest of the report looks at how to alleviate the negative consequences and accentuate the positive.

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It may not be worth the billions in dues that we pay, but the United Nations does perform a few useful functions, among them producing some interesting reports. The latest of these is The State of World Population 2007 from the United Nations Population Fund. The news is summarized in the first few paragraphs of the introduction:

In 2008, the world reaches an invisible but momentous milestone: For the first time in history, more than half its human population, 3.3 billion people, will be living in urban areas. By 2030, this is expected to swell to almost 5 billion. Many of the new urbanites will be poor. Their future, the future of cities in developing countries, the future of humanity itself, all depend very much on decisions made now in preparation for this growth.

While the world’s urban population grew very rapidly (from 220 million to 2.8 billion) over the 20th century, the next few decades will see an unprecedented scale of urban growth in the developing world. This will be particularly notable in Africa and Asia where the urban population will double between 2000 and 2030: That is, the accumulated urban growth of these two regions during the whole span of history will be duplicated in a single generation. By 2030, the towns and cities of the developing world will make up 81 percent of urban humanity.

The report notes, even-handedly, that the implications of this shift for social policy are mixed: “The current concentration of poverty, slum growth, and social disruption in cities does paint a threatening picture. Yet no country in the industrial age has ever achieved significant economic growth without urbanization. Cities concentrate poverty, but they also represent the best hope of escaping it.” The rest of the report looks at how to alleviate the negative consequences and accentuate the positive.

But from a military standpoint the picture is much bleaker. Its implications can be summed up in one acronym that our armed forces dread: MOUT (Military Operations on Urban Terrain). And if you want to know why it’s dreaded within the military, simply think of the American experience fighting in cities such as Hue in 1968 and Fallujah in 2004. Both were ugly battles with heavy casualties, because urban environments negate much of our firepower advantage.

The only way to try to avoid a block-by-block struggle is to simply wipe out the entire city, which is what we did to numerous German and Japanese cities in World War II. But that’s not something we seem willing to do anymore, at least not given the stakes in places like Iraq or Vietnam. In any case, even unrestrained use of firepower is not a foolproof strategy—the Germans leveled Stalingrad but still faced a tough fight against dug-in Russian defenders who used rubble as fighting positions. The same thing happened more recently to the Russians in Chechnya—they leveled Grozny, but still had to fight their way into the city.

The U.S. Army knows how unpleasant such fights can be, so it tries to avoid them wherever possible. That helps to explain why the last version of the U.S. Army’s Field Manual 90-10 (Military Operations in Urbanized Terrain) was issued in 1979. A new edition is in the works, and it can’t come soon enough, given these trends in global population. American soldiers in the 21st century will be doing much of their fighting in places that resemble the alleys and streets of Baghdad more than they do the desert where the 1991 Gulf war was fought.

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