The filmmakers behind the Daniel Pearl drama “A Mighty Heart” wanted to honor the slain journalist by doing what he did best — tell the straight story, unadorned by opinion, ideology or bias.
Starring Angelina Jolie as Pearl’s widow, “A Mighty Heart” unfolds in docudrama style, its just-the-facts approach putting viewers in the midst of the anguish, hope and heartache that family, friends, and colleagues underwent in the weeks after his kidnapping in Pakistan in January 2002.
Sympathies clearly are with Pearl and his loved ones as victims, but “A Mighty Heart” does not preach or condemn, does not take sides or point fingers. Like last year’s Sept. 11 saga “United 93,” the film simply tells what happened, chronicling the horror and humanity experienced by one family in our new world of terrorism.
“We were making a film about a journalist and felt we should try to reflect that,” said “A Mighty Heart” director Michael Winterbottom, who often applies documentary style and improvisation to heighten the sense of authenticity in his films, which include “Welcome to Sarajevo,” “In This World” and last year’s “The Road to Guantanamo.”
“Mariane and Daniel are both journalists. Obviously, they were trying to report on events and make sure they give as fair a view as they could. We didn’t want to build any opinions into the film; to try to tell it as accurately as possible. Why change it? Why try to dramatize it? Tell it as truthfully as you can.”
‘Even studio heads actually care about this’
Though “A Mighty Heart,” which opens Friday, features one of the biggest stars on the planet and was produced by Jolie’s romantic partner Brad Pitt, the film is notably free of Hollywood trappings.
Jolie buries herself in the role of Mariane Pearl, a French radio journalist who was six months pregnant with Daniel’s son at the time her husband was kidnapped.
What follows is a harrowing four weeks in which Jolie’s Pearl copes with false hopes and false alarms, frustrations with the multinational collection of investigators and bureaucrats on the case, and packs of reporters covering her husband’s abduction.
“This story and this time is something that everybody remembered,” Jolie said at May’s Cannes Film Festival,” where “A Mighty Heart” premiered. “Even studio heads actually care about this, they care about Danny Pearl and they care about Mariane. Even when we came to the publicity, they didn’t ask for things that were silly. All anybody had to say was that didn’t feel right, and nobody pushed.”
Based on Mariane Pearl’s memoir “A Mighty Heart: The Brave Life and Death of My Husband, Danny Pearl,” the film begins on the day of the Wall Street Journal reporter’s disappearance.
Daniel Pearl — played by Dan Futterman, the screenwriter of 2005’s “Capote” — told Mariane he might be late for dinner, as he had a meeting with a sheik for a story on Islamic militancy. He never came home, and authorities later determined the meeting was a ruse by Islamic militants to kidnap Pearl, who later was beheaded by his captors.
Almost overnight, Mariane Pearl’s circle of friends and associates widens to include U.S. diplomats, Pakistani authorities and dozens of others who take a deep interest in bringing her husband home alive.
‘Our world is becoming so much smaller’Winterbottom had his actors spend time with their real-life counterparts, allowing the performers to get a better handle on their characters and also giving them insight into how many lives the Pearl story touched.
“When you hear them speak about that event, personally it’s changed their lives forever,” said actress Archie Punjabi, who plays Daniel Pearl’s Wall Street Journal colleague Asra Nomani. “Each one of those people is somebody’s son or daughter or husband or wife. Each one of them stopped their entire life to focus on Danny, and when you meet them, you can see how the events affected their lives.”
One of those affected was the Pearls’ son, Adam, born in France months after his father died. Futterman said he felt great responsibility playing Pearl, knowing the film could one day convey a sense of the man to his son.
“He never got to meet his father. He may see this at some point, and hopefully it will expose him to certain things about his dad and the kind of man he was,” Futterman said.
The fact that “A Mighty Heart” comes from British filmmaker Winterbottom brings the story to a wider audience than if a Pakistani director had shot the film, said Irrfan Khan, an Indian actor playing a Pakistani counterterrorism official who becomes a key ally to Mariane Pearl.
“It’s a great thing that somebody from the Western world has taken an interest in this region,” Khan said. “Our world is becoming so much smaller and smaller, and you cannot remain unaffected by other parts of the world.”
‘You should not be terrorized’As critical to the story itself is its message of standing fast against terrorism, the filmmakers say.
“The kidnappers, their whole point is to terrorize people,” Jolie’s Mariane tells friends after they learn of Danny’s death. “I am not terrorized, and you should not be terrorized.”
Mariane Pearl felt it was critical to refuse to give in to the fear and hate that terrorism can elicit, Jolie said.
“I think she is a great example of that, because under the most extraordinary circumstances, she remained very focused on ... having sympathy for the other side, even after they did that to her husband,” Jolie said. “And having the openness to learn about them. And I’m sure she feels all that we expect her to feel, but somehow on top of that, she managed to rise above it.”
The filmmakers stuck to that notion, showing a wildly disparate group of people — Americans, Europeans, Pakistanis, Indians and others — coming together with a common goal to bring Daniel Pearl home safely.
“When I met the people involved, it struck me a lot of them had felt defeated, ashamed in a way that they hadn’t brought Danny back. Mariane manages to make them not feel like that. She made them understand a lot of positive things came from that experience,” Winterbottom said. “That must have made a huge difference for them.”