Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Shades of grey: the subtle heroics of A Mighty Heart

In the midst of a summer season full of superheroes and computer-generated special effects, A Mighty Heart makes for the most unlikely release, a bracingly uncommercial film in which most everyone already knows the outcome. Why would anyone want to see a downer film in which militant Islamic terrorists kidnap Daniel Pearl, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal in Karachi, Pakistan, just so his six month pregnant wife can worry about his whereabouts for much of the movie?

By not bowing to convention, however, A Mighty Heart still finds ways to intrigue. Adapted from Mariane Pearl’s memoir, the film does not take the usual high-tech route to supply the viewer with jingoistic feel-good fantasies of romance or video game action or world domination—just the opposite. Using natural lighting and a handheld DV video camera much of the time, British director Michael Winterbottom goes for documentary realism, shooting the story in sequence and encouraging the actors to improvise some of their lines. In an extreme contrast to her portrayal of Lara Croft of the Tomb Raider series, Jolie (as Mariane Pearl) first appears massively pregnant and lying on a bed in a nightgown. I have not seen such subtle acting on Jolie’s part since her work in Girl, Interrupted. Both committed journalists, Mr. and Mrs. Pearl work in murky areas of international power games. As Daniel (Dan Futterman) discusses with various people his dangerous meeting with Mubarik Ali Gilani as he investigates a link with the “shoe bomber” Richard Reid, he also finds time to call his wife Mariane on his cell phone. When he doesn’t come home one evening as planned, we witness Mariane’s increasing desperation as she calls to a line that has gone dead. Then she alerts the Pakistani authorities and the American consulate.

As moviegoers, we get used to having collisions between good and evil defined in obvious terms, but A Mighty Heart emphasizes the infinite shades of grey. For instance, the bombing of 9/11 prompted the American-led war against the Taliban government in Afghanistan, but many of Al Qaeda’s activities bleed into neighboring Pakistan, where Karachi is one of the largest cities of the world, with millions of citizens and refugees from other countries. The Pearls inhabit a maze of confusing political and Islamic agendas, and the film emphasizes this when the Pakistani counter-terrorist officials search Pearl’s friend’s apartment and seize Daniel’s computer for information. With the many proliferating technological ways to communicate, there’s something grimly ironic about an investigation that tries to decipher e-mail contacts, ISP addresses, text messages, and cell phone numbers as methods to trace kidnappers.

In a manner that reminded me of the American-Indian dynamic in A Passage to India, A Mighty Heart shows how Mariane’s hunt for the kidnappers leads the officials to break into homes at night and carry off unsuspecting family members. Just as the US Government reputedly used torture in the Quantanamo Bay prison, so do the Pakistani officials also torture their suspects to get information. When the Pakistanis discuss American foreign policy, one asks: “What do the American know about us except to bomb us all?” I confess that I didn’t know about Karachi or many of the Muslim traditions on display in the movie, and the effect is futuristic in the sense of an overpopulated world increasingly turning to desperate measures to gain media notice.

Meanwhile, Mariane just tries to keep her act together by lying in bed reading What to Expect When You Are Expecting as the press start to harass her and kidnappers send out e-mails accusing her husband of being a CIA spy. Ultimately, by largely sticking to the truth, A Mighty Heart seems much more sinister and mysterious than any action-adventure romp. Science fiction writer William Gibson says that there’s no need to write about the future any more. The present is strange and freakish enough. With its mix of technology, media, powerlessness, and tragedy, A Mighty Heart illustrates Gibson’s point abundantly. In the midst of the media circus, Mariane retains some measure of dignity and self-control, an achievement much more compelling than anything the Tomb Raider ever accomplished.

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