Ticking too slowly

This adapation of the Mariane Pearl memoir nearly bores even as it approaches its ghastly, heartrending end.

By NATHAN BURSTEIN
October 11, 2007 13:24
4 minute read.

 
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A MIGHTY HEART Directed by Michael Winterbottom. Written by John Orloff. 100 minutes. Hebrew title: B'koah Halev. In a better world, a movie like A Mighty Heart would never have been made. But the planet - or at least Muslim extremism - is what it is, and so instead of celebrating her husband's 44th birthday this week, French journalist Mariane Pearl is instead mourning his death, perhaps watching from afar as the film adaptation of her memoir, also called A Mighty Heart, opens in Israel. The film's major accomplishment, perversely, is that it will make most viewers regret its existence, knowing its basis is the real-life abduction and murder of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter forced to "confess" his Jewish background before his decapitation by radical Muslim kidnappers in early 2002. Set primarily in Pakistan, the land of his death, the film depicts not the final days of the murdered journalist but memories of the same period recorded by his wife, who's played here for both better and worse by Angelina Jolie. The movie depicts its heroine with a pointed lack of glamour, but despite the actress' obvious commitment, her celebrity nevertheless hovers immovably over the film, both highlighting and diverting attention from its basic shortcomings as a work of drama. Six months pregnant at the time of her husband's kidnapping, Mariane Pearl was herself a journalist working at the time of his death - though it was he, not she, who sought a meeting with Mubarik Ali Gilani, a fundamentalist Muslim cleric possibly connected to a major terrorist attack thwarted the month before. A day after arriving in Karachi, Pakistan - and two days after learning his first child would be a son - Daniel Pearl set off for a meeting with Gilani, telling his wife he'd be back just a few short hours later. But the interview, as virtually every viewer already knows, was a trap, and the journalist's hurried goodbye was the last time Mariane Pearl would see him alive, excluding the photos that later surfaced of her husband in terrorist custody. His disappearance unleashed a flurry of activity and contrasting responses, with US Secretary of State Colin Powell demanding an unconditional end to the kidnapping even as editors at the Wall Street Journal requested negotiations for his release. The screen should practically pulsate with emotion and suspense, but the story has been transferred inadequately, managing nearly to bore even as it approaches its ghastly, heartrending end. The problem with A Mighty Heart is not that everyone already knows its outcome - the same was true with Titanic - but that its focus, however well-intentioned, is placed on a part of the story that simply doesn't lend itself to filmed storytelling. United 93, another fact-based drama about victims of Muslim terror, succeeded despite viewers' knowledge that passengers on the hijacked flight - both the good ones and the bad - would die a horrible death together in a Pennsylvania field. The difference between the two films - and the difference that makes all the difference - is the characters who dominate the camera, figures who in United 93 transform swiftly but convincingly as they realize the horrific death that awaits them. The point of A Mighty Heart, by contrast, seems to be that Mariane Pearl doesn't change - that she remains resolute, stoic and loving even as the odds diminish of her husband's safe and happy return. The filmmakers hint every so often at the character's inner turmoil - showing her anxiously rub her pregnant belly or shout to keep the investigation team on track - but on screen, at least, she remains essentially one-dimensional: tragic and admirable but ultimately a haze lingering off in the distance. The effect, ghoulishly, is to shift attention back to what viewers already know is coming, injecting an uncomfortable sense of anticipation into scenes presaging the discovery of Daniel Pearl's death. Jolie, a captivating performer when supported by a good script, gives it her all in the inevitable breakdown scene; viewers' chests will tighten as the bad news registers on her face. But cruel as it feels to convey, the impact of the scene has been blunted: Who, one still wonders, is this woman, and what, beyond the clichés, did her relationship with Daniel Pearl mean? It's Mariane Pearl's husband, ultimately, who undergoes the film's most serious transformation, though the figure himself appears only in short flashbacks. Played without ostentation by Dan Futterman, a 2006 Oscar nominee for his screenwriting work, the 38-year-old reporter may have undergone an awakening while in captivity, shifting from the soft-spoken nice guy shown early in the film to a man who knows the true nature of both his own character and his killers'. Though Pearl never shied away from his religious identity - "I'm Jewish," he tells a Muslim conspiracy theorist unabashedly - the journalist's ordeal may have led him to a last-minute insight, at least in the movie's analysis of the terrorist documenting his death with a video camera (the title of the video, a detail left aside by the film, was The Slaughter of the Spy-Journalist, the Jew Daniel Pearl). In his life's final moments, Pearl more than admitted his Jewish background, voluntarily adding information about his family's generations of history in Israel. It sounds like a moving act of defiance, and - in contrast to Pearl's fate itself - will likely be news to many of the film's viewers. Expressed differently, however, the film's most poignant moment doesn't actually happen on screen - it's merely reported by one of the characters. Powerful material is contained in this movie, but not at its core - not in the places a mighty heart should be.

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