Do we need another movie about the liberal West watching in horror as something that daily befalls helpless bystanders all over Africa, Asia, and the Middle East happens to one of us? We do: Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was murdered by Islamic jihadists in Pakistan while researching a piece on shoe-bomber Richard Reid in 2002, is one of scores of underprotected foreign correspondents killed on the job since 9/11, which makes his death a relatively neglected political issue right there. His beheading, served up on a video that quickly ran around the internet, was an act of such unspeakable barbarism, it renders almost any representation a potential invasion of privacy. But Pearl's widow has written a memoir, and though I can see feeling queasy about a film that reframes Pearl's murder as his wife's ordeal -- especially as played by Hollywood siren (and friend of Mariane) Angelina Jolie in a corkscrew-curl wig and dusky skin, with a well-tutored French accent and those deeply distracting lips -- Michael Winterbottom has made an enormously moving document of the tense days between Pearl's capture and the news that he was dead.
There is an embedded thriller in A Mighty Heart, replete with obligatory pounding score and cutaways to the teeming chaos of seamy Karachi, as American and Pakistani intelligence agencies try to root out Pearl's abductors after he's suckered into what he thinks is a crucial interview. Closer in method and spirit to Winterbottom's terrific asylum-seeker docudrama, In This World, than it is to his overwrought The Road to Guantánamo, A Mighty Heart is about waiting, about hanging around under the worst of circumstances with only bad news in the offing.
Far from exploiting the grisly minutiae of Pearl's death (we never see the video), the movie makes stringent demands on our patience, as the search fans out through the computer files of Washington and Karachi to the warren of hovels where terrorist cells multiply like mushrooms. Daniel, played as a loving husband and affable colleague by an impressive Dan Futterman, disappears early on, and aside from a few flashbacks to the couple's remembered happiness, the focus is on Mariane.
Pearl's death was an affront to all humanity, and I was holding my breath to see whether Winterbottom would use the occasion to slag off on American foreign policy, as he did in his credulous The Road to Guantánamo by converting Guantánamo inmates from victims into heroes. Here, though, Winterbottom is completely up front about the naked anti-Semitism of Islamic jihad and the fact that Pearl died as much because he was a Jew as because he was an American. If nothing else, this simple, decent docudrama offers a forceful counter to the repugnant argument, heard not only in the East but faintly echoed on the European far left, that whatever happens to Ugly America and its acolyte Israel, they have it coming.