Mighty Heart, A: Winterbottom’s Biopic of Widow of American Journalist Daniel Pearl, Starring Angelina Jolie

“Mighty Heart,” Michael Winterbottom’s fact-based drama, is a politically honorable, emotionally engaging film that chronicles the events leading to the murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl. This topical film, which somehow falls short of being truly poignant, world premiered at the 2007 Cannes Festival and will be released by Paramount Vantage in the US June 22.

Ideologically urgent and always intelligent yet not entirely successful, “Mighty Heart” may be too ambitious for its own good, trying to document a vastly complex political situation that led to the brutal killing of Wall Street journalist Daniel Pearl (Dan Futterman, “Capote” screenwriter), while not neglecting the personal tragedy of his wife-journalist Mariane (Angelina Jolie).

Admittedly, helmer Winterbottom and writer John Orloff, adapting Mariane Pearl’s memoir, have faced enormous challenges of how to dramatize an extremely complicated and complex political setting, defined by numerous facts, events, and diverse players of several countries. For the large part, all of the above are marvelously handled, but ultimately, “Mighty Heart” can’t decide what it is about and whose story it is telling, Daniel’s or Mariane’s

Placed in the broader career of Winterbottom, a director who has made a number of political films utilizing a documentary style, “Mighty Heart” is more effective and engagng than “Road to Guantanamo.” Commercially, too, it’s safe to predict that “Mighty Heart” will become the most successful film by Winterbottom, a director with regular presence in the festival circuit but no substantial audience in the American marketplace.

Produced by Plan B (Brad Pitt is credited as a producer) and Revolution Films, “Mighty Heart” is anchored by a strong performance from Angelina Jolie, who, despite star status, completely blends into a cast of mostly unknown or no-name actors of various nationalities.

Here’s a particular collaboration that’s mutually beneficially: Jolie should elevate the profile of Winterbottom’s work through her celeb status, and the Brit director is able to coax a more credible and powerful performance from Jolie than she has given in a long time.

Indeed, “Mighty Heart” is a triumph for Jolie, who here looks deglamorized, sporting a convincing French accent, and behaving like an ordinary wife. This is no minor feat, considering the poor parts Jolie has been playing of late, including the embarrassing political saga, “Beyond Borders.” Rendering her best work since her Oscar-winning turn in “Girl, Interrupted,” Jolie impresses with her understated, non-actorish approach. Though it’s too early to predict, with strong critical support and some luck, Jolie might be rewarded later this year with an Oscar nomination, this time in the lead category.

As a story of kidnapping and execution of a US journalist, “Mighty Heart” recalls Costa-Gavras’ “Missing” (1982) about the disappearance of the leftist American Charles Horman in El Salvador. Though the politicsand the U.S. government stancewere simpler and clearer, Costa-Gavras grabbed the audience’s attention through a family melodrama, in which the man’s father (Jack Lemmon) realizes how little he knew about his son and his wife (Sissy Spacek). Similarly, Winterbottom knows that it will be easier for viewers to relate to the story’s politics if there is a sympathetic character at its center, and as played by Jolie, Mariane emerges as ultra-heroic and ultra-sympathetic.

“Mighty Heart” both suffers and benefits from its far more complex political circumstances. For one thing, no clear “villains” emerge right away. For another, it takes a long time (about half of the film) until specific individuals are identified by name, religion, and nationality, even if in the end, the U.S. enemies and their politics remain vague.

“Mighty Heart” faces the problem of recreating on screen a recent tragedy that was well-documented by the media, including the showing of the tapes of Pearl’s graphic and brutal execution. In this respect, Winterbottom deserves credit for his restrained approach and for his refusal to manipulate viewers with the sensationalistic tape.

The film begins with Mariane’s voice-over narration of the basic events of Sep 11, 2001 and the US focus on Afghanistan in an effort to capture Osama Bin Ladin, destroy Al Qaeda, and remove the Taliban regime.

On Jan 21, 2002, journo Daniel Pearl and his six-months-pregnant wife Mariane learn that their unborn child is a boy. A day later, they arrive in Karachi, Pakistan, and Pearl begins investigating a possible link between the “shoe bomber” Richard Reid and Mubarik Ali Gilani, a Pakistani cleric with past involvement in militant Islamic groups.

On Jan 23, Pearl meets with Randall Bennett (Will Patton) in the U.S. Consulate to discuss his plans to meet with Sheikh Gilani, and the former counsels him against that meeting. Unfazed, Pearl meets with Kaleem Yusuf, head of the Citizen-Police Liaison Committee, to discuss his meeting with Sheikh Gilani. Kaleem warns Pearl to stay in an open, busy location, but indicates that as long as he follows this advice, he will be safe.

Pearl arrives by taxi to the Village Restaurant to meet with Gilani, and later leaves voluntarily with the men who would become his captors. The first indication that something is wrong is when Pearl fails to check in with his editors in Karachi. The Pakistani law enforcement begins to investigate Pearl’s disappearance.

Mariane, who’s deeply upset but not hysterical, meets with Khalid Khawaja, an ex-ISI pilot and friend of Osama Bin Laden, to discuss her husband’s disappearance. Khawaja states unequivocally that Sheikh Gilani would not meet with a Western journalist because it is against his beliefs, suggesting that Pearl’s interview arrangement might have been a trap.

On Jan 25, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation joins the effort to find Pearl, working with Pakistani law enforcement and the US consulate. Two days later, a militant group calling itself the National Movement for the Restoration of Pakistani Sovereignty claims responsibility for the kidnapping, noting that Pearl is a CIA spy, and giving the US two days to meet their demands, or else Pearl will be killed. Their message is sent via e-mail to several news outlets.

On Jan 28, Paul Steiger, Managing Editor of the Wall Street Journal, issues a statement saying that Daniel Pearl does not work with the CIA or any part of the US government. Pearl’s kidnappers acknowledge that he is not CIA, but accuse him of working for Mossad, the Israeli government intelligence agency. They claim Pearl will be killed in 24 hours if their demands are not met.

In February, Pakistani police find a computer, which they believe was used by Pearl’s captors. The computer’s owner, Farhad Naseem, implicates Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh in the kidnapping. Mariane appears on CNN to talk about her husband and to make an appeal for his life. The second suspected kidnapper, Salman Saquib, is taken into custody, and is implicated by Naseem, who turns out to be his uncle. Salman then implicates a third individual, Sheikh Adil.

Three men are charged by the Pakistani police for their involvement in Pearl’s kidnapping. They are said to be members of Jaish-e-Mohammad, another militant group Sheikh Omar is affiliated with. On Feb 12, he is taken into custody in Pakistan and confesses to involvement in the kidnapping, but believes that Pearl is still alive.

The worst news is delivered on Feb 21, when a video entitled “The Slaughter of the Spy-Journalist, the Jew Daniel Pearl” is released. The video shows Pearl’s dead body, which is subsequently decapitated. The US State Department confirms that Pearl is dead. Winterbottom stages the scene in which Mariane is told about her husband with the utmost restraint and respect. Going back to her room, she lets one of the most anguished shrieks you’re like to hear this year in American film. The room is so dark that it’s hard to see details, and Mariane is shown from the back, thus eliminating any histrionic acting or more conventional manipulation of audiences’ emotions.

Throughout the film, Winterbottom and his editor insert snippets of flashbacks of Pearl and Mariane’s happy past together, warm memories of a couple of journalists who wanted to believe that they are bringing a new child into a better world.

But despite all the accomplishments, “Mighty Heart” is ultimately a frustrating film. First, it slides into sentimentality toward the end, when the Pearls’ Jewish wedding ceremony is shown, as if to eradicate or make more tolerable the yarn’s predominantly painful and horrible events.

A more severe problem is the film’s inability to decide whose story it is telling. There’s very little info about Daniel’s political beliefs and journalistic ethos other than praise that we are asked to take at face value. We never find out what kind of journalist Pearl was. Nor, for that matter, do we get to know Mariane’s work as a journalist, though a title card at the end makes sure to inform us that she lives with her son and works as a journalist in Paris.

There’s also a disingenuous note toward the conclusion, when in one of many TV interviews, Mariane maintains her admirable dignity and detached reserve by claiming that after all Daniel was just one of many other men kidnapped, tortured, and assassinated, and they also deserve press attention and public sympathy. This would have been a more poignant note if the movie made an earlier reference to the other casualties, but it does not.

Solid as it is, in this and other respects, “Mighty Heart” is a Hollywood problem picture, one that embraces the basic conventions of the genre, celebrating one heroic individual–a great humanistic journalist–and one heroic woman–his wife–who never stopped hoping that her husband was still alive and never really crumbled under pressure.

End note

In July of 2002, Sheikh Omar and his co-defendants were convicted of kidnapping and murdering Pearl. Sheikh was sentenced to death, while the other three men received life sentences.

The movie was in post-production when this year, on March 15, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed confessed to a U.S. military tribunal that he murdered Daniel Pearl.


Paramount Vantage Release
Produced by Plan B Entertainment, Revolution Films
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Screenplay: John Orloff, based on Mariane Pearl’s memoir
Producers: Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Andrew Eaton
Director of photography: Marcel Zyskind
Production designer: Mark Digby
Music: Harry Escot, Molly Nyman
Costume designer: Charlotte Walter
Editor: Peter Christelis


Mariane Pearl: Angelina Jolie
Daniel Pearl: Dan Futterman
Asra Nomani: Archie Panjabi
Captain: Irrfan Khan
Randall Bennett: Will Patton
John Bussey: Denis O’Hare
Dost Aliani: Adnan Siddiqui
Steve Levine: Gary Wilmes
Masud the Fixer: Daud Khan
Omar/Bashir: Alyy Khan
Suleiman: Taj Khan

Running time: 108 minutes

MPAA rating: R

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