Plot Takes Back Seat to Jolie's Star Power in A Mighty Heart
The recent blog-driven fuss kicked up by the movie A Mighty Heart -- whether casting pale-skinned Angelina Jolie as darker-skinned Afro-Cuban-Dutch Mariane Pearl, the wife of murdered journalist Danny Pearl, was an act of racist dimensions -- seems irrelevant when you consider an important piece of evidence: the movie itself. The film is not about Pearl and his journalism (as Pearle's colleague Asra Nomani has complained). And it's not about Mariane Pearl (we learn little of her past, her work, her views). It is about glamorous actor/U.N. refugee activist Jolie playing Mariane Pearl.
The real-life Pearl story was a tragedy of immense sadness. A talented journalist who sought to understand the world and convey that understanding to readers of the Wall Street Journal was abducted and murdered by al Qaeda jihadists who cared not a whit for such bridge-building. Yet the story within the movie, unfortunately, is not much of a story. After Pearl is kidnapped in Karachi in January of 2002, Jolie-as-Mariane essentially waits two weeks for the bad news. She and the Asra Nomani character try to retrace Danny's prekidnapping steps to get a lead on the abductors, but they have little success. The Mariane of the movie confronts no dramatic choices. She takes no decisive action. She does keep her composure, she worries, and she reminisces (a lot). But her actions do not drive the narrative. This is not to suggest that the real Mariane Pearl insufficiently responded to the terrible situation at hand. She did all she could. But at the center of this movie is only tragedy, not plot.
Once you understand the movie was custom-built for Jolie to display her acting chops by portraying a woman on the verge of profound loss, the casting issue becomes moot. It was designed as a star vehicle for a particular star: Jolie. There was no casting call. Sure, there's an issue with Hollywood and black actors. (When I was once working on a film project, a studio exec gently told me that a lead character should not be black because that would hurt the film's overseas marketing; the movie was never made.) But how many female Afro-Cuban-Dutch actors in Hollywood were available for the part of Mariane Pearle? And the charge that Jolie, who used makeup to darken her complexion for this role, was resorting to a modern-day version of blackface is false. White entertainers in years past donned blackface to mock and exploit a repressed group. That was not the aim of Jolie -- or that of Brad Pitt, a producer of the film, who obviously viewed the project as a showcase for his talented wife. And to her credit, Jolie poignantly depicts Mariane's anxiety, strength, and, grief.
With Jolie the main point of A Mighty Heart, the film, which was directed by Michael Winterbottom (who directed the 1997 Welcome to Sarajevo), zeroes in on one of the least interesting angles of the Pearl episode: the helpless wife who can do nothing to save her husband. Intriguing questions raised by the event go unexplored. For example, how can Western journalists engage with the other side in this clash of civilizations? The murder of Pearl stands as a constant reminder for Western journalists of the high cost of doing business in parts of the Islamic world. Consider Iraq. American journalists no longer can safely explore that war-torn nation to serve as the eyes and ears of Americans citizens. (Once, while giving a talk at a college, I asked the audience to guess how many correspondents Time magazine had deployed in Iraq. Most people estimated two dozen or so. At the time, there were three -- to cover the entire war and a country the size of California.) What happens when there are no more Danny Pearls?
Winterbottom succeeds in presenting a fast-paced movie that visually embraces the Pakistani and Indian locations where it was masterfully shot. But the film skates past another matter: the use of torture. The most interesting character in A Mighty Heart is not Mariane but Captain Javed Habib, a (fictitious) Pakistani police officer in charge of the search for Pearl. Played exquisitely by Irfan Khan, a veteran Indian actor, Habib is caught between two worlds. In the aftermath of 9/11 and the U.S. attack on the Taliban, Pakistani strongman Pervez Musharraf wants to show he's a reliable ally of Washington. Yet his military and intelligence service have bonds with Taliban and perhaps sympathy for al Qaeda. In one scene, the Pakistani interior ministry tells Mariane Pearl and U.S. officials that it's damn clear (at least to him) that India had orchestrated Pearl's kidnapping to embarrass Pakistan. In other words, don't expect much help from us.
Yet Habib pushes on -- a cop doing his job. And what happens when his team nabs one of the conspirators? As the suspect-hanging from the ceiling of his cell -- is tortured, Habib extracts crucial information from him. A security officer from the U.S. embassy looks on, satisfied. The information obtained nearly leads Habib to Pearl's kidnappers. Lesson learned: torture works. Or can work. Were Habib's actions justified? (We're not talking Jack Bauer here.) Yet before that question can be contemplated, the film moves on. Throughout the movie, Habib has to navigate moral, sectarian and bureaucratic shoals. But his intriguing journey is relegated to the realm of unexamined subplots.
Winterbottom brushes against a few provocative ideas as he chronicles Mariane's path toward the inevitable. At the time of Pearl's abduction, much of the world was outraged at the United States' treatment of the prisoners at Guantanamo. The movie hints that Pearl's abduction might be payback for U.S. excesses. In one brief scene, after Pearl's been branded a CIA agent in the Pakistani press, Mariane confronts a senior Wall Street Journal editor and reminds him that the Journal did turn over a computer hard drive it had obtained to the CIA. She is suggesting the paper endangered its reporters by having cooperated with the CIA. "We had no choice," the editor replies. The issue of media-government collaboration goes unengaged. And when Habib confronts Omar Sheikh, a British-born terrorist connected to the Pearl kidnapping, Sheikh has a simpler explanation for the abduction and murder of Pearl: "He was an American. Just that."
"What do Americans really know about Pakistan?" a Pakistani guest at a dinner party scornfully asks at a dinner party in the movie. The obvious reply: not much. And the same could be said for Afghanistan, Iraq, and a great many other places. Both Danny and Mariane Pearl were doing what they could on this front. (Mariane was and remains a journalist herself.) The Journal deserves kudos for having dispatched Danny Pearl and other reporters to Pakistan and elsewhere to learn what could be learned about the proponents of terrorism. This is worth keeping in mind as the Journal creeps toward the folds of Rupert Murdoch's media empire.
Toward the end of the movie, Jolie/Pearl notes that Karachi is the frontline in the West's battle against a vast international network of terrorists: "Wherever there is misery, they find people, and there is misery in lots of parts of the world." This is as much of a message as the movie offers. And it's a postmodern movie moment, for it's hard to tell if Pearl's speaking or whether it's Jolie, the goodwill ambassador for the U.N. commission on refugees. I suppose the true answer is that it's both.
Which gets to the heart of the matter. The problem with A Mighty Heart, a well-made and heart-breaking movie, is not the color of Jolie's skin but the brightness of her celebrity. Her star power -- which she and Pitt funneled into this sincere endeavor -- ended up eclipsing the story of Danny Pearl and its meaning.