Strange New World
Wall Street Journal investigative reporter Danny Pearl is dead. He was killed by Islamist terrorists in Karachi, Pakistan, in early 2002. This is not a secret, not the subject of debate or controversy, not giving away the surprise tragic ending of A Mighty Heart. Michael Winterbottom’s powerful and provocative new film — based on the memoir by Mariane Pearl, Danny’s widow and a respected journalist herself — is not a detective story, not a murder mystery, though it takes that format. It is not about the small details about Danny’s kidnapping and murder, Mariane’s perserverance and grief, and the local investigation into the crime — though it is all that as well — but about the big picture, about giving us an alarming portrait of the dangerous and strange new world we’re living in that most of us sheltered Americans can’t even conceive of.
Like some other of Winterbottom’s films of the last few years — last year’s The Road to Guantanamo, 2002’s In This World — this one is like a stinging slap in the face. “Welcome to the 21st century,” it says; “this is our mess; we made it, we’ll have to live with it.” And there’s a kind of culture-shockiness to it, that quality to Winterbottom’s films that make me love them out of all proportion to reason: they simultaneously evince an unignorable documentary-style urgency and a tinge of the science fictional, as if they mean to point out that while we may not all have gotten our jet packs and domestic robots, all the fun toys the shiny sci-fi future was supposed to bring, we sure as hell have managed plenty of the dystopian stuff the grimmer SF warned us about.
To wit: A Mighty Heart opens in Karachi, a city with “so many people, no one knows how to count them,” as if we’re halfway to a soylent green future already. Here is where Danny and Mariane’s story mostly plays out for us, as they stay at the home of a friend and fellow journalist… what we would consider an ordinary middle-class home, except this one is behind security gates that keep the desperate poor out. And yet it is not from among the uncounted desperate poor that danger arises, but from — as we also saw on 9/11 — well-off, Western-educated men with an ideological and religious ax to grind. Danny (Dan Futterman: Enough, Urbania) goes off one evening to meet one of these comfortable, wealthy Islamists — he’s been promised a meeting with a particularly elusive terrorist leader — and never returns.
Mariane (Angelina Jolie: The Good Shepherd, Mr. & Mrs. Smith; she is so powerful and so strong in the role that she brought me to tears with her Mariane at one point) and the friend, Asra Nomani (Archie Panjabi: The Constant Gardener, Bend It Like Beckham), immediately set up a bustling headquarters at Asra’s home, working closely with the American embassy, Pakistani antiterrorist cops, and their own colleagues at the Journal to coordinate the investigation into Danny’s disappearance. Quickly, though, it becomes obvious that what once would have been considered a relatively simple and straightforward crime, however harrowing for those involved, becomes something entirely different and new: a creative new front in this burgeoning war of philosophies. The battle plays out in newspaper, on TV, on the Internet: accusations from the kidnappers that Danny is working for the CIA, for Mossad; images of Danny in captivity that ape images of the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. “They’re going to release him, okay?” Danny’s sister assures Mariane over the phone from Los Angeles, half a world away and from where his family is nevertheless quite able to follow the story. “No one would ever want to hurt Danny.” But this isn’t about Danny as a person — he is symbolic: a Jew, an American, and, most insidiously, from his captors’ perspective, a journalist. They are waging a PR war, and the death of someone like Danny would serve too many causes and strike too many nerves to let the opportunity pass.
That may seem obvious to us now, five years later — Winterbottom’s perfectly tuned narrative machinations, and that of John Orloff’s script, slip the slow realization of this in among the high-tech investigatory procedures. Emails zip around the world with photos sent by Danny’s kidnappers; chains of cell phone calls are traced back to the kidnappers; but all the gee-whiz detective work is not where that tettering unease of living in a disturbingly strange new world comes in. It in the American embassy official (Will Patton: The Punisher, The Mothman Prophecies) who is getting a rush out of the gloves-off approach of the Pakistani cops when they get their hands on a suspect. It is in the atmosphere that saturates A Mighty Heart, of the new cold brutality of a global culture in which people on both sides of the battlelines believe torture works, believe intimidation works, a culture in which paranoia and religious bigotry prevail, a culture in which truth-tellers like Danny Pearl — whose dedication to trying to understand all sides of a story was a weapon used against him — are particular targets precisely because of their openmindedness.
It is perhaps most telling that in this strange new world, more people can still be upset that Mariane Pearl is played here by an actor whose racial background is not precisely the same as hers than seem to be upset that a journalist was beheaded on camera for PR purposes by ruthless ideologues. It suggests that many people still do not fully appreciate the strangeness and horror of how we are living today. It suggests that A Mighty Heart is exactly the prescription to remedy that.