A mighty sad movie

The heroism shown in a new film about the death of Daniel Pearl is worth celebrating, even if the film shows little compassion for Pakistan, writes Ras H. Siddiqui

Sunday, June 24, 2007

By Ras H. Siddiqui

Paramount Picture's A Mighty Heart hit the US cinema screens on June 22. The Michael Winterbottom (Road To Guantanamo) directed effort has attracted a great deal of curiosity among those interested in the life of the slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was killed in a grisly way (beheaded) in Karachi in 2002.

Since the movie had two key elements associated with it namely journalism and Pakistan attending its press screening at the Tower Theatre in Sacramento, California, on June 13 became a must. We headed there knowing that this was not going to be a pleasant experience, and on that note there were no surprises.

The mass market appeal of this movie lies in the Brangelina factor which has a number of adherents. Angelina Jolie (who plays Mariane Pearl) is usually a sufficient attraction by herself. Here, she teams up with hubby Brad Pitt (one of this film's producers) giving this Brad-Angelina factor its partial completeness, which could have become whole only if Pitt had played the role of Daniel Pearl (played here by Dan Futterman). But one is deviating from the movie here by dwelling too much on the duo, because on numerous occasions the story actually overpowers the actors in the film.

A Mighty Heart appears to be about the futile search for Daniel Pearl, terrorism, torture, graphic violence, Al Qaeda, Taliban, the American CIA/FBI, Israel's Mossad, Pakistan's ISI and India's Raw (not mentioned by name). But in actuality it is the story of Mariane Pearl, the vulnerable, pregnant and devoted wife who is caught up in the search for her loving husband, a man who had many friends and admirers but whose search for journalistic truth leads him into the fatal lair of a group of merciless killers.

The film starts with 9/11 in narrative and its subsequent fallout in the region. Journalist Daniel Pearl is in Pakistan investigating a possible connection between 'shoe bomber' Richard Reid and an Islamic cleric by the name of Gilani. Told that he should only meet his contacts in public places, Daniel travels to a popular Karachi restaurant from where he disappears. The city's ace supermarket also makes an appearance as a place where Mariane shops (food appears to be plentiful in this film).

The search for Daniel Pearl involves both high-tech cyber address searches and low-tech methods of information extraction. It is the rapid-paced investigation to locate Daniel and the kidnappers that is a powerful part of A Mighty Heart. The level of cooperation between the Americans and the Pakistanis during this search is very positive in parts but then again the focus on Daniel Pearl's Jewish faith, and the possible reaction to it in Pakistan, is more than a tad overdone.

It is the rapid-paced investigation to locate Daniel Pearl and the kidnappers that is a powerful part of A Mighty Heart. The level of cooperation between Americans and Pakistanis during this search is very positive in parts but then again the focus on Daniel Pearl's Jewish faith, and the possible reaction to it in Pakistan, is more than a tad overdone.

In the cast of characters, Archie Panjabi's (Bend It Like Beckham) role as Asra Nomani did not reach significance from the acting perspective, especially with her weak Urdu skills. Angelina herself made Mariane Pearl come alive in parts, while Dan Futterman's role as Daniel was difficult to keep up with. Randall Bennet played a strong role as Will Patton and Pakistani actor Adnan Siddiqui made a number of appearances, but if one was to point out the most striking role in this film beyond Angelina's, it would be that of Irrfan Khan (with either one or two r's) as Captain.

The Indian actor continues to make an impact here in America as he has recently moved us with his role in The Namesake, a movie which received great reviews from American critics but was grilled by many South Asian writers. Irrfan Khan certainly captures the essence of his role in A Mighty Heart. In mannerisms, facial expressions and dialogue delivery, his acting talent stands out.

There are a few touching moments in this film, such as Mariane's text message of affection to Danny in the hope that he will receive it. Keeping up with the false claims of her husband's demise and then finally encountering the real one is taxing, but since most of the world already knows the tragic ending to this story, it remained difficult to create a sense of suspense

From the Pakistani perspective, there is no relief in A Mighty Heart from portraying the country as a huge problem to western secular interests. Filmed mainly in Pune (Poona), India, the Karachi that many of us know is almost completely absent from this movie.

The image of a lawless country consumed by violence and chaos is once again being promoted in this film. The compassionate heart of Karachi is missing altogether. There is a great deal of emphasis on religious zeal and poverty, but no attempt made to break the stereotypes westerns carry of Pakistan. It is hoped Jamil Dehlavi's Infinite Justice, a movie made last year and shown only at film festivals thus far, will someday reach American audiences.

In conclusion, one is glad that with all that is wrong with the world today, there are still people like Mariane Pearl who look to a future and have not joined the ranks of those who only want to see the entire Muslim world (and Pakistan) through the singular lens of Al Qaeda. It is also heartening to note that she made this movie for her son, Adam. As we all know, in the Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition the name Adam not only focuses on the beginnings of the human race but is a common name for boys in all three faiths. Daniel Pearl's murder should bring all decent people together in condemnation, irrespective of their faiths.

A Mighty Heart is a mighty sad movie. It has some flaws, but one can chalk this one down as a learning experience. One thing is for certain, it will not boost popcorn sales at any theatre.