The coordinated attacks against the US on 9/11 were brutal, shocking, and spectacular, but for all of their ghastliness, they made a degree of sense. No matter how much one’s brain boiled with anger and revulsion over the outrage, it was always hard to accept the “why us?” position so disingenuously taken up by the Bush administration. US foreign policy is frequently deplorable, and above all unfair, and to expect the rest of the world to accept that without anyone plotting revenge was foolhardy. Indeed, as many non-Americans have (quietly) remarked in the years since the attacks, it had only been a matter of time.
For many of us, there was a kind of solace to be taken in this truth, in the belief that this was not a motiveless crime, not merely a baseless act of ignorance and religious mania. In short, the fact that Bin Laden and his followers had a clear statement of purpose (which was carefully swept under the rug by the Bush administration) helped to at least provide some understanding of the whole thing. They had an agenda, a rationale (however repulsive), and above all, a reason (however odious) for doing this terrible thing. Back in those early days of the suddenly declared War on Terror, there was a brief stretch of a few months when a certain meaning seemed to hover around the events.
But when, in early 2002, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was murdered by a group of Pakistani and Afghani thugs, it became impossible to take cold comfort in the idea that Al-Qaeda was working a logical (if poisonous) political game. His death was somehow different, a signal that things had changed. Indeed, Pearl’s murder was proof that this concept of jihad, of an unending war against Jews and the “great Satan” that is the US, is indiscriminate, vulgar, and, finally, morally bankrupt. To exact a meaningless price from this reporter, whose work was, by all accounts, fair and levelheaded, was to demonstrate the final idiocy of the politics of these jihadists. This wasn’t about meaning anymore, was it?
September 11th was a demonstration of power, of will, and of capability. Pearl’s murder was a demonstration of a hollow politics of hatred. Here was a man whose murder benefited no one, an action that brought nothing but further pain and hardship to the people of Pakistan (who had to suffer increasing losses of civil liberties in the wake of this high-profile kidnapping). Here was a murder of such ancient brutality that it signaled to all that this was a politics of regression, of infantile reckoning, predicated upon the misreading of one of the world’s most beautiful books. Politics, suddenly, wasn’t the right word to define this thing.
Michael Winterbottom’s study of all of this, last Spring’s extraordinary A Mighty Heart, works like a live action documentary without offering much of an editorial on its subject matter. Following the fraught few weeks between Pearl’s kidnapping and his murder, the film places us in the midst of the unfolding horror as every clue leads to some new bit of unhappy news. At the center of the film is Marianne Pearl, Daniel’s pregnant wife (also herself a journalist), and her close friends and colleagues. As good reporters, they try to turn this into a story, scribbling names in notepads and on whiteboards, having roundtable discussions that look and feel like editorial sessions, and pushing sources for information. They collaborate with local police (and some American law enforcement services including the FBI), and at times the film takes us on extended missions with the police as they try to track down something useful. It rarely works.
Throughout, Marianne Pearl (Angelia Jolie in what is undoubtedly her finest performance to date) remains amazingly calm, even steely. Her logic and rationalism contrasts visibly with the rambling chaos of Karachi that unfurls just outside her gated compound. As the search for her husband grows increasingly fruitless, she perseveres. “Their point is to terrorize people,” she explains, defiantly. “Well, I am not terrorized.”
A Mighty Heart maintains a close, fly-on-the-wall presence throughout, its hand-held cameras and improvised dialogue (replete with stutters and coughs) providing a remarkable sense of immediacy and verisimilitude. The ensemble cast (including a warm, heartening performance by the beautiful Archie Panjabi) is sharp and attractive, but appropriately bedraggled. It’s all very compelling, and certainly at times fascinating as a study of a remarkable woman in a time of unparalleled apprehension and grief. But, in the end, what we have known since we sat down in front of the screen (reluctantly, I might add) has to take place. Daniel has to be murdered and Marianne’s world has to be shattered.
What this leaves us with is an odd bit of entertainment. As with Paul Greengrass’ masterful play-by-play of the highjacking of United 93, we know exactly where this film is going from the opening credits. It simply can’t surprise us. Suspense, then, is always already muted by the simple fact of inexorability. At last, all we have is the horror we began with. Pearl will be beheaded, for nothing, and the world gets a little darker.