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.