A World Without Pity

Film still for A World Without Pity

A Mighty Heart , based on Mariane Pearl's memoir of the kidnap of her journalist husband Daniel, completes a trilogy of films by Michael Winterbottom that probe the post-9/11 world. By Ali Jaafar

The body of Daniel Pearl had been hacked into ten pieces when Pakistani police discovered it in a four-foot-deep grave on the outskirts of Karachi in May 2002. More infamously, the American journalist had first been beheaded by his al-Qaeda captors. That act, filmed and distributed over the internet in February 2002 on a grimy video titled 'The Slaughter of the Spy-Journalist, the Jew Daniel Pearl', would become one of the iconic moments of the post-9/11 world, a graphic manifestation of skewed ideology and fanaticism.

A faithful adaptation of Pearl's wife Mariane's account of her ordeal, Michael Winterbottom's A Mighty Heart understandably glosses over the journalist's period in captivity, forced confession and subsequent murder. Instead the focus is on the heavily pregnant Mariane, holed up in a Karachi home, and the five-week manhunt by Pakistani security forces for her husband and his kidnappers. While the character of Daniel Pearl makes fleeting appearances (played by Capote screenwriter Dan Futterman), his presence is largely limited to flashbacks recalled by Mariane herself (Angelina Jolie), the powerfully calm and increasingly desperate centre of proceedings. Her intimate, often romantic recollections of her husband give a human depth to a man the world would come to know foremost through images of him in a dirty tracksuit, his hands tied, a gun held to his head.

Even at the time, the story had all the ingredients of a Hollywood melodrama. The handsome, thoughtful Pearl was the Wall Street Journal's South Asian bureau chief, and with his equally photogenic wife, a reporter for French public radio, was on a mission to uncover the truth in a world turned on its head. Pearl had been investigating the links between failed shoe-bomber Richard Reid and Pakistan's feared Inter-Service Intelligence Agency (ISI). That Mariane was six months pregnant with their first child - who would be born just days after the discovery of his father's remains - only added to the tragic symmetry of the personal and the political hurtling towards disaster.

Yet for all its story's dramatic tidiness and convenient real-life three-act structure, A Mighty Heart is marked by contradictory tensions on almost every level. For a start, the film represents Michael Winterbottom's first foray into directing an American studio picture, backed by Paramount Vantage and with A-listers Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie as producer and star respectively. For a film-maker so defiantly independent, the move into the Hollywood machine raises questions over the extent to which Winterbottom was able to deliver an undiluted artistic vision. "I don't really see it like that," says the director. "Of course, if you make a film you have to take responsibility for it. But it's not about being in contest with other people; it's a collective effort."

Though the project didn't originate with Winterbottom - Pearl's book was optioned by Pitt and co-producer Dede Gardner for their Plan B Entertainment production company - A Mighty Heart completes what might be called a loose Pakistan trilogy that began with In This World (2002) and The Road to Guantanamo (2006). Indeed Winterbottom was in Peshawar filming In This World when news of Pearl's kidnap broke. Voyages play a central role in all three films: In This World follows the harrowing journey of two Afghan refugees seeking asylum in the UK, while Guantanamo offers an excoriating denunciation of the US military camp through the story of a trio of British Muslims seized in Afghanistan and held in Guantánamo Bay for two years before being released without charge. A Mighty Heart travels between the worlds of the home of Daniel's colleague Asra, with whom the Pearls are staying, and the heaving, dusty streets of Karachi, a city of "so many people, no one knows how to count them", as Jolie's voiceover has it. And it's here that we witness another of the film's internal conflicts: between inside and outside, private and public.

The film's action is split between scenes in Asra's home - which becomes the investigation headquarters as Mariane and her supporters trawl her husband's emails and draw up charts to pinpoint the groups potentially responsible for his kidnap - and the Pakistani security forces' twilight raids on the city's back streets. The conduit between these two worlds - the former buffered by armed guards, in-house catering and modern technology, the latter seemingly the embodiment of chaos theory - is the head of Pakistan's newly formed counter-terrorism unit, known in the film as Captain. Played with magisterial world-weariness by Irrfan Khan (The Warrior, The Namesake), the character brings to mind Benicio Del Toro's beleaguered cop in Traffic (2000). Where Del Toro's character was caught between rival Colombian drug cartels and an opportunistic US drug-enforcement policy, Khan's Captain has to navigate Pakistan's labyrinthine bureaucracy and the shadowy tentacles of al-Qaeda's extremist influence over Karachi while answering to the growing concern of a wife in search of her husband. "The film is about the relationship between the two: the small group inside the house who are making all these connections and what's going on outside, where all the energy, chaos and confusion is," says Winterbottom. "That's the structure of the story: the quiet and calm inside contrasted with all the noise from outside."

While Jolie's presence may have attracted the lion's share of publicity, her understated performance is frequently upstaged by Khan's trips into downtown Karachi. It is in these scenes, shot on location on the streets where the actual investigation took place, that Winterbottom's masterful police procedural crackles into life. We know how the story ends, yet for a few tantalising moments as Captain methodically and at times brutally untangles this vicious vipers' nest, the prospect of success appears possible. And Karachi itself becomes the film's mighty heart: indecipherable, menacing and oblivious both to the Pearls' personal calamity and to its place as the centre of attention for the world's media.

The thrill of the chase allows Winterbottom to escape the moral straightjacket the film wears elsewhere. "I love this town," exclaims US security agent Randall Bennett gleefully, following a gunfight between Captain's men and a group of radical Islamists. While Bennett - played with mischievous relish by Will Patton - presumably embodies the dubious relationship between the US and Pakistan's security apparatus, one can't help but feel Winterbottom's guilty pleasure at the character's amoral stance. It isn't that Bennett rejects the notion of a good vs evil, 'you're with us or against us' mentality as overly simplistic or counter-productive, but rather that the security agent (whom we discover during the end credits has moved on to Iraq) seems to be saying that certain circumstances require certain measures. Questions of morality, runs this argument, have no place in a world where morality itself has lost its currency, where thousands of civilian deaths can be waived away as collateral damage in the pursuit of a noble cause, where a journalist can be butchered for doing his job. Which leads us to the film's more troubling inner struggle.

Throughout A Mighty Heart references are made to the detention by US forces of captured Islamists who are denied all legal rights - whether in the kidnappers' emailed demands calling for the release of prisoners from Guantánamo Bay or in televised scenes of detainees in orange jumpsuits. Winterbottom's approach, which avoids explicitly denouncing the extremist ideology of the kidnappers, has provoked criticism from, among others, Daniel Pearl's father Judea. "I am worried that A Mighty Heart falls into a trap Bertrand Russell would have recognised: the paradox of moral equivalence, of seeking to extend the logic of tolerance a step too far," he wrote in The New Republic. "Drawing a comparison between Danny's murder and the detainment of suspects in Guantánamo is precisely what the killers wanted, as expressed in both their emails and the murder video... [S0] I am concerned that aspects of [the] movie will play into the hands of professional obscurers of moral clarity."

Winterbottom himself refutes the charge. "It wasn't about me trying to make a political point," he says. "We included the kidnappers' email because it was a key moment in the story. Equally, the pictures on TV were taken from what was being broadcast that night. It's important to remind people of the time when Danny was kidnapped. Both the people in Guantánamo and Daniel Pearl are victims of the post-9/11 escalation of violence."

In one scene an interrogation by Captain and his men veers perilously close to torture, using methods presumably employed by US forces at Guantánamo. Would these methods have been justified had they led to Pearl's rescue? "I see my role in making the film as similar to that of a journalist," says Winterbottom. "And what we showed is what we were told happened. It's the same in The Road to Guantanamo: it's simply trying to tell the story. If we'd deliberately tried to make the people on the right side do right and the people on the wrong side do wrong, that would have been a lie - and with a story like this, the first thing you have to do is tell the truth. Of course, as a person you believe some things are right and some are wrong, but as a film-maker I'm not making a statement. It's more for the audience to see what's going on and to make their own judgements."

Winterbottom's stated desire to remain objective is less convincing in relation to The Road to Guantanamo, however, where he allows explanations by the Tipton Three of their presence in Afghanistan to go unchallenged. A major weakness of that film is that it posits the three's innocence as the major plank of its argument against the injustice meted out to them, leaving unasked the more demanding question of whether their imprisonment would have been justified even had they been guilty.

In a post-9/11 world turned upside down, where seemingly no government can be trusted, the murder of Daniel Pearl stands out as an act of extreme callousness and brutality. While the evidence of the taped beheading and the confession of al-Qaeda number three Khalid Sheikh Mohammed that "I decapitated with my blessed right hand the head of the American Jew, Daniel Pearl, in the city of Karachi, Pakistan" seem irrefutable, conspiracy theories have arisen as to why. The kidnappers themselves didn't seem entirely sure: Pearl was accused of being a spy, first for the CIA and then for Mossad, while his Jewish faith was also cited. Sections of the Pakistani government have even accused India of carrying out the killing - which took place during heightened tensions over Kashmir - in order to embarrass Pakistan's president. And British-Pakistani director Jamil Dehlavi's Infinite Justice, inspired by the Pearl case if not directly biographical, featured US and Pakistani officials plotting to kill the journalist in as brutal a way as possible so as to shock the world about the horrors of militant Islamism.

"I think since 9/11 there has been a desire on both sides for more hostility, a cruder division of the world into right and wrong," says Winterbottom. Yet his refusal in A Mighty Heart to recreate the Pearl death video shows a commendable rebuttal of the sensationalism and hunger for ratings that inspired CBS News' airing of part of the tape. Instead, the film limits itself to a few seconds of Pearl's last recorded words. Rather than seeking to shock, the moment is used to argue that Daniel Pearl died a free man, with his defiant affirmation of his Jewish faith and the role his forefathers played in the creation of Israel demonstrating that he refused to bow to his captors' terror. More shocking is the scene where Mariane is told of her husband's execution, her primal scream of fury and anguish shattering the moral obfuscation and political correctness that hover elsewhere. For once the film wears its own mighty heart on its sleeve.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012