Since 2001 studios have overwhelmed audiences with movies about terrorism and the war on terror, set in locations like Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, that, once exotically vague, now vied for didactic realism as they had become too familiar to continue to be irresponsibly depicted like in the old days of Rambo III.
Terrorism is such a broad topic it has originated many different movies: movies that explore the social-economical-political roots of the violence (Syriana; Munich); excellent satires (In The Loop; Four Lions); movies concerned with the impact of new terrorist laws on civil rights (Rendition); and real-life stories (United 93). A lot of movies have been made on this matter. Some are good; some are bad.
One of my favourite efforts was A Mighty Heart. Directed by Michael Winterbottom, from a screenplay by John Orloff, it’s hardly a movie that will go down in film history as a masterpiece. When it came out in 2007 it received mostly positive reviews but since then has faded out of memory. However, with American troops finally abandoning Iraq in December 2011, and scheduled to fully leave Afghanistan by 2014, hopefully signalling the end of the era of the war on terror, I’m compelled to review this delicate, heartbreaking drama about a woman coping with the impact of terrorism on her life.
The movie is based on Marianne Pearl’s non-fiction book. In January 2002, her husband, the American journalist Daniel Pearl, was abducted in Pakistan and nine days later beheaded by terrorists. The story is an account of the race against time initiated by Marianne, in cooperation with the American Embassy and the Pakistani secret services, to try to save him. It’s a slow-paced drama that unfolds like a thriller. The outcome is no surprise and although we’re expecting the inevitable conclusion, the kidnapping by overshadowed by Marianne’s personal ordeal.
I read the book before watching the movie; it pleases me to declare that it’s very faithful, if not completely to the events – it omits and compresses some facts but distorts little – at least as far as the emotional aspect of the story is concerned. Although the book has fascinating details about the complex, intense investigation, the movie is ultimately about triumphing over evil, and defeating terrorism simply by refusing not to be terrified.
Many movies have explored the causes of terrorism; others have explored (or exploited) the effects of terrorism in their pyrotechnical, widescreen spectacle. Few have shown that the purpose of terrorism is, bombings aside, to provoke fear in people, undermine their sense of security and render them paranoid and emotionally vulnerable. And that makes Marianne Pearl’s experience truly inspiring.
Angelina Jolie was chosen by Marianne Pearl herself for the main role, and although her accent is problematic and occasionally slips, her grip on the character’s inner turmoil never lets go. Playing a woman who lives in expectation of being told that her husband is either dead or alive, her performance is in constant flux, from hysterical outbursts of grief, to strength and confidence, to compassion. This is probably the most demanding role she ever played.
Sadly Marianne Pearl’s role is overdeveloped to the detriment of the other characters. The screenplay fails to give Irrfan Khan, Will Patton, Archie Panjabi, Dan Futterman and the rest of the cast much to do. Khan’s character especially, the Pakistani chief of secret services known only as The Captain, changes from one of the most interesting figures in the book to a stock police detective. In the book, The Captain exhibited a conflicted, tense personality, torn between protecting Pakistan’s image and using illicit means like torture to make breakthroughs in the investigation. This dual conflict is barely hinted at in the movie. Many scenes barely have room to breathe.
And the movie never resolves this problem. It can’t make up its mind about whether it’s an ensemble movie or a drama about a woman. It tries to give a panoramic vista of the event while focusing on Marianne Pearl. Everyone else is underwritten and rushes through snippets of scenes that beam with untapped potential.
During the investigation, Marianne’s house in Pakistan was the hub where everyone gathered to share new information, make plans and also to socialize. What the movie does well is show how Marianne, through her resilience, managed to coordinate all the efforts and create a close-knit group that was united not just by a mission but through friendship. It’ll be difficult to find another movie about terrorism with such a serene, even optimistic atmosphere. And in the regard, the movie is also very faithful to the book.
Like the book, the movie depicts a woman who refuses to be terrified and fights to maintain a sense of normalcy in her home. In order to defeat terrorism, this movie argues, reinforcing bonds of community and maintaining one’s humanity is perhaps more effective than violence. No other scene demonstrates this better than the dinner Marianne gives at the end of the movie. By then her husband’s body has been discovered; she is about to leave Pakistan. But not before dining one last time with everyone who stood by her during those nine days of anxiety and dread. It’s a scene that is totally out of place in this type of movie. And that’s what makes A Mighty Heart stand out from the competition.
Movies about terrorism usually lead to a lot of preaching and finger-pointing. A Mighty Heart is subtler, almost apolitical. It doesn’t seek to inflame or upset us. It doesn’t make us cry out for justice or shake ours heads at the horrible world we live in. It’s a movie about mercy and the ability to overcome tragedy and conquer hatred. In the darkly pessimistic world we live in, that makes A Mighty Heart’s message a wonderfully radical one.
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Screenplay: Marianne Pearl (A Mighty Heart), John Orloff
Cast: Angelina Jolie, Will Patton, Irrfan Khan, Dan Futterman, Archie Panjabi
Runtime: 108 min