When we recognize another, or when we ask for recognition for ourselves, we are not asking for an Other to see us as we are, as we already are, as we have always been, as we were considered prior to the encounter itself. Instead, in the asking, in the petition, we have already become something new, since we are constituted by virtue of the address, a need and desire for the Other that takes place in language in the broadest sense, one without which we could not be.
— Judith Butler, “Violence, Mourning, Politics”
A Mighty Heart begins on “the day after 9/11.” This is the first date mentioned, in the first line spoken by Mariane (Angelina Jolie), remembering when she and her husband Danny Pearl (Dan Futterman) flew to Karachi. They were, she reminds you, both journalists, pursuing a story. And then, they became the story.
The film, based on Mariane’s memoir of her husband’s kidnapping and execution, holds all kinds of potential for lurid, sadly familiar, melodrama, no matter the nobility of her bearing or prose. But, directed by Michael Winterbottom, the movie is at once more calculated, more complicated, and more confounding. Cutting back and forth in time as it cuts from crowded street to bleak interior, the movie offers a jumble of memories and events that Mariane will never know. This mix of deeply subjective and starkly observational images, something of a signature for Winterbottom, makes A Mighty Heart a complex, disturbing film, and almost grants it release from its overwhelming star center.
Almost. The movie is least effective when it focuses on Jolie’s mostly smart and compelling performance. It is quite brilliant when it looks away from her, when it shows noisy nighttime traffic, pedestrians who notice the camera then move on, at police roundups of suspects, angry and complacent. In these images the movie finds drama that is “unfamiliar” but also crucial, suggesting the complexity of the task set before investigators in Danny’s case. He sets out to interview an extremist cleric, a meeting set up by a series of unknown-to-little-known contacts, a meeting that feels sketchy, partly because you know what happens, and partly because Danny’s route towards it is so roundabout. Trying to parse the risks of the undertaking with several associates, including a security officer at the US consulate, Randall Bennett (perfect Will Patton, Danny appears in brief glances, his face close but averted, as you know these will be your last looks at him. These are also looks Mariane never has, though he calls her a couple of times during his hours-long journey toward the meeting. As he rides in a cab and wonders aloud where he’s headed, or waits in a dim-lit restaurant or gets into the last cab he would take, she goes food shopping, prepares dinner, checks her email. And she waits.
When Danny doesn’t come home, Mariane marshals those forces she can, including good friend and Danny’s fellow Wall Street Journal writer Asra Nomani (Archie Panjabi) and their editor John Bussey (Denis O’Hare). Soon they are joined in the Pearls’ apartment — which quickly becomes a faxing, researching, and coordinating headquarters — by local officials and American representatives, including an FBI agent whose single line (“Interesting”) hints at the US reputation for non-cooperation, even within its own agencies. The assembled group comes to realize that Danny is a “high value hostage,” suspected to be a member of Mossad and then, the CIA. The kidnappers send photos and emails.
Mariane sets herself to the task — reading innuendo and clues, gathering information, keeping in contact with Danny’s parents back in the States, looking after herself, for she is six months pregnant — with earnest energy and some acumen. She understands her role, appearing on TV and appealing to local officials (deftly rejecting both the “Be quiet little lady” and the “Americans deserve what they get” attitudes she encounters). And she comes to trust the chief of Pakistan’s counterterrorism unit, called the Captain (Irrfan Khan). As they cull reports and try to connect people in the plot, the essential questions have to do with trust: “Do we believe this story?” Mariane asks, as various accounts of what happened or why accumulate and compete.
To its credit, the film doesn’t precisely imagine what happened. Its glimpses of Danny in taxis and on street corners are just that. Once he’s gone, he appears in the film mostly in Mariane’s memories — their very sunny Jewish-Buddhist wedding, working and traveling together, and yes, the apparently unavoidable moments when they admire her pregnancy together, or she turns over in her bed to find it empty, without him. But for all the effort to make the relationship an emotional focus, to recall Danny as a loving, worthy man and not only a videotaped victim of terrorism (and specifically, a victim of a carefully worked-out plot by British-born Ahmed Omar Sheikh), the film is most acute when it looks at the world around him.
Offering only details, fleeting surfaces, the camera shows not only daily Karachi bustling, but also the nuances of tourism and journalism, the differences between the visitors and their hosts. The camera frequently pauses on the woman who cleans the Pearls’ apartment, whose underfoot child evokes the future the couple had imagined. Or it catches television reports of world events, including images of detainees at Guantánamo Bay. This isn’t just background. On one level, such imagery recalls Winterbottom’s last film, Road to Guantánamo, which probed the indistinction between truth and fiction both in US policy and detainee stories. A Mighty Heart is also interested in this indistinction, as the abuses at Guantánamo sparked outrage at the US (meaning, Pearl’s kidnapping did not occur in a vacuum), and as TV images help to shape public, official, and individual ideas and responses.
The Guantánamo images also speak to a late development in the film, when the Captain interrogates a suspect in hopes of locating Danny, still presumed to be alive. The questioning takes place in a dark, hard room, the suspect hung from the ceiling as the Captain tortures him to get answers. It’s a scene Mariane doesn’t see, but the film’s inclusion of it complicates your sense of the Captain. He’s not an American-style action hero, doing what he must with fanfare and clamor. He is instead doing a job, understanding the desperate situation, miserable about it, and determined. Khan’s face here doesn’t reveal anguish, agitation, or pleasure, but weariness and knowledge, too much knowledge. The torture produces information, but it’s all too late and, you begin to see, part of the same violent, apparently unstoppable cycle. Fear, anger, and desperation reproduce themselves, in cruelty and atrocity.
Against this sort of brutal pragmatism, the movie offers Mariane’s tenacity and generosity, her embodiment (French-Cuban) of international multiplicity as a matter of course. On television again after the ordeal, she refuses to condemn the Pakistanis, instead speaking to the effects of poverty and oppression. “Wherever there is misery,” she says, “they find people.” She also refuses to look at the beheading videotape, and the film resists looking as well. Indeed, for a film about an extreme act of violence, it looks very little at violence, but rather, hopes for alternatives. Neither does it trumpet the cause of journalism per se, the Pearls’ vocation and mission, as a means to fix the world (Mariane walks out on the interviewer who asks about the videotape: “Have you no decency?”). Looking forward from 9/11, the film resists focusing on the sensational and horrific story of Pearl’s kidnapping. Instead, it diverts attention to its contexts.