Daniel Pearl was a fascinating man. The journalist who was kidnapped and murdered in Pakistan in 2002 grew up in an intellectual Jewish household in Encino, Calif., but ended his life across the world in Muslim Pakistan. He was a member of two groups — Americans and Jews — much hated by fundamentalist terrorists, but he spent his time investigating them. The journalist risked his life both to document a culture and to probe how some in that culture are funding terrorism. He was also an accomplished musician who brought his violin along for impromptu jam sessions in the bars of Asia.
Yes, Daniel Pearl is a compelling character, but you wouldn’t know it from the new movie based on his life, “A Mighty Heart.”
You learn more about him in the first five minutes of last year’s HBO documentary “The Journalist and the Jihadi” than you do in the entire 100 minutes of “A Mighty Heart.” Flashbacks (with Dan Futterman as Mr. Pearl) are meant to acquaint us with the man before his death, but all they really reveal is that Mr. Pearl was a very good-looking man and that he was much in love with his wife.
Then again, it’s Mariane Pearl who wrote the book on which the film is based and Mariane Pearl who’s at the center of this film. She’s an interesting figure in her own right, a Parisian journalist of Dutch, Afro-Cuban and Chinese ancestry who was five months pregnant when her husband was kidnapped on his last day in Karachi while investigating links to Richard Reid, the British shoe-bomber. But director Michael Winterbottom has done the story a disservice by focusing it so tightly on her.
Angelina Jolie plays with an accent that’s a bit heavier than Mariane’s actual accent, but it’s more than serviceable. As the movie begins, she’s making preparations for a farewell dinner while her husband seeks advice from American and Pakistani authorities on an interview he’s to conduct that evening with a cleric he thought might be connected to Reid. “Meet only in public,” everyone tells him.
Danny reassures them he will, but something went wrong. Mariane’s worst fears are realized when she receives an e-mail from a group calling itself the National Movement for the Restoration of Pakistani Sovereignty saying it has kidnapped her husband and will only release him when the U.S. government accedes to its demands.
Mr. Winterbottom, whose last movie was the controversial docudrama “The Road to Guantanamo,” has made “A Mighty Heart” look very much like a documentary. He even managed to find very good actors who look astonishingly like the people they portray. (One wonders, though, if the arrogant FBI officer here was based on fact or cliche.)
It’s a style with promise, but the problem is that, with the outcome known by anyone with a television set, “A Mighty Heart” must work hard to develop dramatic tension. Last year’s September 11 docudrama “United 93” managed that feat. However, in focusing on Mariane Pearl sitting in a house in Karachi awaiting news of her husband alongside Wall Street Journal editor John Bussey (Denis O’Hare, who provides some much-needed lightheartedness with his reading of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting”) and Journal writer Asra Nomani (Archie Panjabi), Mr. Winterbottom doesn’t.
The most interesting character is the Captain (Irfan Khan, “The Namesake”), the Pakistani authority in charge of the investigation. But we never get to see much of what he does. There’s a hint that Pakistani interrogation techniques involve torture, but Mr. Winterbottom chickens out, never showing us more than glimpses of what’s going on.
In real life, the mastermind of the crime is just as fascinating as Mr. Pearl. Omar Sheikh was born and raised in Britain and described by one of his public school teachers in the HBO documentary as “an old English gentleman.” So how did he turn into an extremist? “A Mighty Heart” doesn’t even bother to pose the question.
With fine performances (it’s Miss Jolie’s best in years) and a talented director, “A Mighty Heart” is nothing so much as a missed opportunity.
TITLE: “A Mighty Heart”
RATING: R (language)
RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes
WEB SITE: www.amightyheartmovie.com
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS