Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, could have been a disaster: cheap, movie-of-the-week-style exploitation of a sensational kidnapping and highly publicized killing. Instead, British director Michael Winterbottom and a fine cast headed by Angelina Jolie crafted an intricate policier that's both suspenseful and thoughtful about the turmoil surrounding Pearl's disappearance and the importance of what he and other journalists were attempting to do in what had become one of the most dangerous places on earth.
January 23, 2002: While most foreign journalists have already left Karachi, Pakistan, in the wake of the U.S. war against the Taliban, Daniel Pearl (Dan Futterman), the Journal's South Asia bureau chief, and his pregnant wife, French public-radio reporter Mariane Pearl (Jolie), remain behind at the home of their friend and colleague, Asra Nomani (Archie Panjabi). Pearl is following a lead he hopes will take him to Sheikh Syed Mubarak Ali Gilani, an Islamist cleric who may be tied to so-called "shoe bomber" Richard Reid. Through a series of intermediaries, contacts and a mysterious "fixer" named "Bashir" (Aly Khan), a meeting between Pearl and Gilani is arranged at a Karachi restaurant. But unbeknownst to Pearl, Gilani isn't even in Karachi; the rendezvous is a carefully laid trap. When he fails to return home and calls to his cell phone go unanswered, Mariane begins to worry. The following morning, she contacts the police. As the fear that Danny has been kidnapped becomes a terrible likelihood, Asra's house fills with police, Journal colleagues, FBI agents, representatives from the U.S. consulate's Diplomatic Security Service, and Pakistani law-enforcement officers, including the head of the Crime Investigation Department's counterterrorism group (played by THE NAMESAKE's superb Irrfan Khan), who is determined not to allow a pack of insane kidnappers soil his country's honor. Several days later, a series of disturbing e-mails and photographs are sent to U.S. newspapers: Pearl is shown handcuffed with a gun to his head, the prisoner of terrorists who accuse him of spying for the CIA. It's a ridiculous accusation, but Mariane prays the kidnappers don't know the one thing that will surely get him killed in a culture warped by anti-Semitic disinformation: Daniel Pearl is Jewish.
A MIGHTY HEART is in many ways a companion piece to Winterbottom's previous film, THE ROAD TO GUANTANAMO, which followed the ordeal of three Englishmen of Pakistani descent who were accused of being enemy fighters in Afghanistan and held without trial at Guantanamo Bay's notorious Camp X Ray. Winterbottom shows the way reports of such abuses helped fuel the anti-American rage in terrorists like Pearl's murderers, and the film is a fitting tribute to Pearl and other journalists who died trying to explain the turmoil, hatred, corruption and confusion to the rest of the world, a chaos reflected in cinematographer Marcel Zyskind's footage of Karachi. Though absurdly criticized for being too "white" to play Mariane Pearl, Jolie gives an excellent performance. She portrays Mariane as gutsy, smart, passionate and highly efficient in the search for her husband, though brown contact lenses lend her expression a dead-eyed stare that's at complete odds with the spark evident in Mariane Pearl's face even during her darkest days.