Heart of Darkness: Homage to Pearl Is Grown Up, Courageous

A Mighty Heart
Running Time 100 minutes
Directed by Michael Winterbottom
Written by John Orloff
Starring Angelina Jolie, Dan Futterman

Human-rights violations in countries where thugs and tyrants place personal goals ahead of civil liberties seem doubly egregious when applied to the risks journalists take to tell the truth, report the facts, and keep the world informed about man’s inhumanity to man. The press is the one link between every country that should know no borders, yet its members sacrifice their lives in every stupid war. Roughly 180 of them have already been killed since the beginning of the farce in Iraq, but never has this crime against morality and decency captured the attention of the free world with more sorrowful impact than the 2002 kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan. A Mighty Heart is an attempt by British director Michael Winterbottom to compile the sketchy details (based on what little we know) of what happened to a man with a passion for justice who was respected by all. It’s honorable, well-intentioned, often confusing and as fragmented as the file on Daniel Pearl himself. In other words, while the story is compelling, it leaves you scratching your head with the feeling that huge chunks of narrative have ended up on the cutting-room floor.

Mr. Winterbottom is a director who is attracted to injustice in trouble spots where more timid souls dare not wander. But like his previous films The Road to Guantánamo and Welcome to Sarajevo, his fearlessness outweighs his limited ability to tell a story coherently. All too often, the point of the story collapses under the weight of his political priorities. He’s a prolific Don Quixote, committed to tilting cinematic windmills, but he goes about the job clumsily. Filmed in France, India, and Pakistan, which must have been a risky location shoot, Mr. Winterbottom sets up cameras in the actual cafés, bars, hotels and congested streets where terrorists captured Mr. Pearl, used him as a “hostage swap” for Pakistani terrorist suspects held in U.S. jails in Cuba, hid him for 10 days, and then cut his corpse into 10 sections for reasons that make no sense even to the Pakistani government. Pakistan is still a place where danger lives, so you can imagine the heightened security levels surrounding Angelina Jolie, the star (and presumably the reason the movie was financed in the first place). A lot of people consider Ms. Jolie a major acting force on the contemporary scene. I am not one of them. However, as Daniel Pearl’s wife Mariane—half-Dutch, half-Afro-Cuban, raised in France and six months pregnant—she works hard in her black wig, dusky makeup and odd accent to bring to life a sympathetic character. Based on the journals she kept and the book she published after her husband’s death, the events she remembers do come alive, but she’s so tough, independent and self-involved that it is difficult to sustain much interest in her. Why would a logical woman allow herself to be dragged off to a third-world danger zone to give birth to her first child in the middle of hell in the first place? A helpless foreigner stranded on another planet like one hubcap in a traffic jam, she defiantly makes her own choices. Must we applaud them? Finally, in a primitive childbirth scene, Ms. Jolie gets a chance to surrender her reserve and start screaming. It’s effective, but hardly a valid reason to talk Oscar predictions.

The movie is unclear about how Mr. Pearl (well-played in flashbacks by Dan Futterman, an actor with no secrets in his open face) became a pawn in a lethal political tug of war between two opposing countries, why the Karachi version of the C.I.A. was afraid he was a spy for India or why India and Pakistan were fighting over him as a talking point in a clash of idealism which you’d have to be Henry Kissinger to understand. Mr. Winterbottom doesn’t bother to explain the political harangues that reduced Mrs. Pearl to frustration and hysterics, or the fuss made over the fact that Mr. Pearl was Jewish. Try as I do to give these people every benefit of the doubt, I can’t avoid equating the Pearls in Karachi with American forces in Baghdad. None of us had any business going there in the first place.

Mr. Winterbottom has never believed in lighting, so on a purely technical level you could go blind straining your eyesight in the dark. I felt the constant urge to aim a flashlight on the screen just to see what was going on. As long as John Orloff’s screenplay concentrated on the human elements, it held my interest, but wandering all over the place in disconnected shards of political polemic, like a bird flying through a subterranean tunnel, it lost me completely. A Mighty Heart is not a mighty achievement, but in a summer of juvenile dross, it deserves a handshake for grown-up courage. Heart of Darkness: Homage to Pearl Is Grown Up, Courageous