Even though I like watching movies based on true stories, I’ve been wary of A Mighty Heart ever since it was released earlier this year. I was definitely interested in getting some new insight into what happened behind the scenes of the Daniel Pearl kidnapping; but at the same time, I’d heard about all the mixed reviews this movie received, with some of the more cynical critics deriding it as a showcase for star Angelina Jolie to get an Oscar nomination. This was enough to put me off for a while, but I finally gave in and rented the DVD over the weekend. I should have just stayed away.
Plot summary (with possible spoilers): The film opens with a few short scenes of Danny Pearl (played by Dan Futterman) interacting with his pregnant wife Mariane (Jolie). Both of them are journalists, and they’re in the city of Karachi, Pakistan so Danny can chase down various interviews and stories, most notably about the attempted bombing by Richard Reid. He finally got a big lead, a potential interview with a man named Sheikh Mubarak Ali Gilani at a restaurant in Karachi, but mysteriously disappears during the cab ride.
When Danny fails to come home or call, Mariane becomes agitated. The political unrest in Karachi was well known, so she felt that there was definite reason to worry. She calls people at the U.S. Embassy, at the Wall Street Journal (where Danny worked), and got some of her friends to make sure that the local Pakistani police agencies were involved as well.
The different players try to piece together Danny’s movements in the days leading up to his disappearance. They comb through his emails and phone records, and try to track down everyone who had contact with him. After a few days, they finally get a new email on Danny’s computer: he’s been kidnapped by extremists who are protesting the treatment of Pakistani detainees in the U.S. They believe that Danny is really a CIA agent, and demand the release of Pakistani prisoners or they’ll kill Pearl.
The rest of the film then shows how the different agencies, both Pakistani and American, race against the clock to try to track down Danny and his kidnappers before it’s too late. Of course, I’m sure that 99 percent of the people who watch this film already know the outcome, so I’m not giving anything away when I tell you that all these efforts fail and Danny is beheaded — on video.
My Reaction: It’s hard for me to write a negative response to something that’s so personal and tragic to real, living people (the Pearl family), but I thought this film didn’t focus on the right story. When the Pearl case unfolded back in 2002, it was a gripping, terrifying, and ultimately tragic story that captivated a worldwide audience. The reason for that was simple: the images of a shackled Danny Pearl with a gun held to his head were frighteningly memorable. Danny was the story then, not Mariane. And that’s where the film went wrong.
Instead of focusing on Mariane during this tragedy, I think the filmmakers should have given the audience a chance to get to know Danny. We saw him for all of, what, two minutes before he disappeared, which simply wasn’t enough time to care about him or to become emotionally invested in what happened to him.
The bulk of the film should have been about Danny, showing us what kind of reporter he was and how he was working hard to chase down the Richard Reid story. Then give us the kidnapping, a condensed version of the efforts to find him, and finally, the tragic result. That’s the story I wanted to see. And think about it: 10 years from now, is the next generation of moviegoers going to understand what the hell this film was about? No, because it doesn’t do anything to set up Danny’s character!
Why the filmmakers chose to focus on Mariane is a mystery to me — particularly since she didn’t do anything the whole time! She kept her cool, didn’t freak out until she his death was confirmed, and then was right back to being her strong self on TV interviews and so forth. Kudos to her for being such a together woman, but does that make for a compelling film? Absolutely not!
Moreover, it was impossible for me to keep all the other characters straight. I didn’t know who was who, what agency they represented, or what their connection to Danny/Mariane was. As a result, the movie was a jumble most of the time.
Overall, A Mighty Heart was not at all the kind of film I was expecting. I was extremely disappointed with the result, and give it 3 stars out of 5.