This is the time of year when I begin to get DVD’s from major Hollywood studios in anticipation of the New York Film Critics Online awards ceremony in December. While we are a lot scruffier than the Oscars jury, our picks do get a fair amount of press play since the Internet is becoming a more trusted source of movie reviews than print.
Last night I watched “A Mighty Heart,” a docudrama about the kidnapping and beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in February 2002 by jihadists in Karachi, Pakistan. The film focuses on the emotional roller coaster of his wife Mariane, who is played by Angelina Jolie–touted as a possible Oscar best actress.
I enjoyed “A Mighty Heart” in the same way that I enjoyed “United 93,” another docudrama that grew out of the maelstrom following 9/11. Both films avoid strident editorializing about “Islamofascism” and are content to allow the events to unfold methodically as a kind of diary. Since both films are directed by Britons, perhaps this is no accident. With such compelling subject matter, there really is no need for embellishment. They also made the wise choice to cast non-marquee actors in all the leading roles, with the exception made of course for the highly bankable Angelina Jolie. By contrast, Daniel Pearl is played by Dan Futterman, whose career has mostly involved minor television roles on “Sex and the City,” “Will and Grace,” etc.
Another important calculation in “A Mighty Heart” is to make this a movie much more about Mariane Pearl than her husband. The screenplay is based on Mariane Pearl’s book, of the same title, which is an account of her unsuccessful struggle to save her husband’s life and a relatively more successful struggle to make sense of the ordeal. You see Daniel Pearl on his way to his appointment with Omar Sheikh, the kidnapping ringleader, but never afterwards. By leaving out the ordeal that led up to and included his beheading, the film therefore reduces the element of sensationalism that typifies more mainstream movie-making.
Unfortunately, many of the deeper insights found in the book are not reflected in the screenplay, which obviously could have only been conveyed through voice-over narration. Mariane Pearl’s dialog mostly consists of impatient imprecations hurled at the Pakistani cops alternating with appeals to them to follow up leads she digs up. Not given much to work with, Jolie turns in a serviceable performance.
What drives the plot forward is the detective work of the Pakistani and American cops, who come across as morally and politically compromised throughout, working in tandem with the WSJ reporters. When Mariane Pearl first approaches a top Pakistani cop, she is told that her husband was looking for trouble by interviewing a jihadist to being with. He also wonders if he was an Indian spy, a charge that mirrors the jihadist claim that he was working for the CIA and/or Mossad. As the vice tightens on the network that organized his kidnapping, one of the arrested men is tortured by Pakistani police. The CIA agent who has been assigned to the case assures Mariane Pearl that the Pakistani cops will hang suspects by their feet and worse to get information. By revealing this dimension of the police work around Pearl’s kidnapping, “A Mighty Heart” is a reminder that the forces of law and order are often no better than the criminals they are pursuing.
If you want to really understand who Daniel Pearl was, you have to look elsewhere. I strongly recommend the HBO documentary “Journalist and the Jihadi: the murder of Daniel Pearl” that can be ordered here. This film reveals Daniel Pearl as a forthright and courageous journalist who was just the opposite of a lackey of US foreign policy. Despite the Wall Street Journal’s editorial stance in favor of the “war on terror,” Pearl was quite sympathetic to Arab and Islamic culture, so much so that he got the nickname “Danny of Arabia” in the WSJ newsroom.
Mariane Pearl’s book recounts an early encounter between her husband and Omar Sheikh, who was known to him as Bashir:
As they were leaving, Danny asked Bashir if he thought he could arrange an appointment with Gilani [a radical cleric who was meant to lure Pearl into a trap.] Bashir answered that he would try, but Danny would first have to prove first that he was “neither anti-Islamic nor anti-Pakistani” by sending a collection of his articles. Another hurdle. If the articles passed muster, the meeting would take place in the capital after our return from Peshawar.
As it turns out, the HBO website for “Journalist and the Jihadi” has a collection of Pearl’s WSJ articles that are well worth reading. Perhaps an article about a revival of pop music in Iran was “proof” of his CIA connections. Mostly they reflect an independent streak that defies any easy connection with US foreign policy–unlike the newspaper’s editorial pages. One of the more interesting pieces is a refutation of the claim that there was genocide in Kosovo in line with Edward Herman and Diana Johnstone’s articles:
British and American officials still maintain that 10,000 or more ethnic-Albanian civilians died at Serb hands during the fighting in Kosovo. The U.N.’s International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has accused Serbs of covering up war crimes by moving bodies. It has begun its own military analysis of the Serb offensive.
But the number of bodies discovered so far is much lower — 2,108 as of November, and not all of them necessarily war-crimes victims. While more than 300 reported grave sites remain to be investigated, the tribunal has checked the largest reported sites first, and found most to contain no more than five bodies, suggesting intimate acts of barbarity rather than mass murder.
Even if Pearl’s reporting had an anti-Arab or anti-Islamic tilt, it was a terrible error to kidnap and kill him. The tendency of jihadists to kidnap or kill reporters makes them susceptible to needless condemnation in the West. When a reporter has a demonstrable willingness to report fairly about events on the ground, as was the case with Daniel Pearl or the Christian Science Monitor’s Jill Carroll, it makes the insurgents look like barbarians. In trying to understand the difference between the antiwar movement of today and that of the 1960s and 70s, one must first of all recognize that the absence of a draft today reduces an irritant that would coalesce a much more powerful and massive movement around the war in Iraq. The other important factor is the utter inability of the jihadists to think in class terms. The Vietnamese were always thinking of possible wedges that could be driven between ordinary Americans and the ruling class strategists who were trying to conquer the country. Unfortunately, as reflected through one miscalculation after another, the jihadists end up using superglue rather than wedges. Perhaps the only thing that explains continuing resistance to the war is the fact that the ruling class strategists of today are even more boneheaded than those of the 1960s and 70s.