Though some were quick to declare a flop, Michael Winterbottom’s A Mighty Heart is actually pretty good. There are strong performances and interesting characters, and a sense of suspense in the plot that took me by surprise. The standout from my point of view is Irfan Khan’s performance as a
fictional pseudonymous Pakistan CID investigator, who pursues Danny Pearl’s kidnappers with a strong sense of purpose and efficiency. Irfan, whom we last saw in The Namesake has a certain presence about him; when he’s on, he owns the screen. (Angelina Jolie also gives a surpsisingly compelling performance.)
Politically, the film does give the wonks out there some interesting bits to chew on. Perhaps the most interesting issue that came up was the obvious schizophrenia within Pakistan’s government in January 2002, during the 10 days of Pearl’s kidnapping. The Pakistan Interior Minister at one point flat-out tells Mariane Pearl (played by Angelina Jolie) that Daniel Pearl’s kidnapping is an Indian plot to discredit Pakistan’s ISI (I haven’t confirmed whether this actually happened or not). Meanwhile, other Pakistani officials are much more helpful in the investigation; even Musharraf, whose televised statements are replayed in fragments in the film, seems to be on the ball.
Visually, the film has a strong desi feel. Most of the exterior shots were done on location in Karachi — which looks suitably chaotic and lively — while the interior shooting was done in Pune, Maharashtra. Also, something like 1/3 of the dialogue is in Hindi/Urdu, which might be a draw in itself. (There’s even a little joke about ABD accents at one point.)
I’m not terribly bothered by Asra Nomani’s criticisms of the film, which seem mostly personal: she wants the film to be a portrait of her friend Danny Pearl, while the filmmakers decided to make a film mainly about his kidnapping and the investigation that followed. Nor am I particularly up in arms about the fact that Angelina Jolie, who is white, is here playing Mariane Pearl, who is biracial (her father is Dutch and her mother is Cuban). For me, the criterion is believability, not finding a direct racial match. (See criticisms of Jolie’s casting at Racewire: here and here)
In fact, my biggest objection to the film was the way it glossed over the apparent use of torture in the investigation of Pearl’s kidnappers. It’s especially jarring given that the message of the film is the urgency of the need to propagate a sense of shared humanity across political and cultural divides. The film seems aware of the torture question — there are montage references to the statements that Pearl’s kidnapping is retribution for the abuse of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay — but it doesn’t actually take a stand on it. For me, that doesn’t work: either we support the use of torture, or we are against it.