Quickie Review: “A Mighty Heart”

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.

38 thoughts on “Quickie Review: “A Mighty Heart”

  1. is Irfan Khan’s performance as a fictional Pakistan CID investigator, who pursues Danny Pearl’s kidnappers with a strong sense of purpose and efficiency

    Amardeep, Irfan Khan plays an actual character. During Daniel Pearl’s kidnapping, there were some Pakistanis who risked (or still continue to) their lives to get him free, some officials were not.

    Mariane Pearl often talks about all of them in her interviews.

  2. I’m not sure it would have been possible for the Pakistani authorities, who were up to then playing host to the likes of Omar Sheikh, to make the suspects know they were serious without the “laying on of hands”.

  3. Kush, while he may be based on one or more real officers, my understanding is that “Captain Javed Habib” is not a real person. That’s what I meant by “fictional.”

    Louiecypher, I understand that — and I’m well familiar with the “ticking bomb” torture argument that gets used every other week in “24″, as well as the “you have to get violent in this part of the world” argument. What the film does, however, is show several of the suspects naked, clearly after being subjected to some kind of physical abuse (one conspirator is soaking wet… from waterboarding?) — but they generally avoid showing the actual inflicting of torture. To me that seemed like a dodge. They’re acknowledging that something occurred, but not facing up to its brutality.

  4. The film seems aware of the torture question

    I have not watched it yet, but I am sure it it. Winterbottom has made an excellent documentary on Guantanamo – The Road to Guantanamo. [netflix].

  5. In a recent interview, he answered the torture question in the context of A Mighty Heart and tried to explain why he did not want to take a stand –

    SF360: The film addresses many large political questions, not the least of which is the authorized use of torture. In the scene where Captain (Irfan Khan) gives the tacit go-ahead to extract information — I believe successfully — from a suspect, the audience is left conflicted about his methodology. Having worked with that topic before, had your feelings changed at all regarding the use of torture? Winterbottom: No. If you imagined 10 years ago that we’d be talking about if it’s right to torture people, you’d be crazy. I don’t think anything’s changed. But the thing is, I’ve met Captain a few times now and he’s a great guy. He was doing whatever he could to help Mariane. Mariane is very close to Captain. All of those things have to be considered into the situation. When we started to tell the story, we referred to Mariane’s book about what went on but then it’s not as clear when you look at events of what must have gone on. I then had firsthand accounts of people who were there who told me what went on. Given that we were making a film about journalism and, obviously, journalistic integrity, we cannot then not put it in the film. Clearly, this is what happened. It’s a key moment in the investigation, a key moment in the story. That’s why it’s in the film; but, the film doesn’t try to comment on if it’s right or wrong. People have to judge that for themselves when they watch the film.
  6. Amardeep: I understand the arguments against torture: a) The danger of torturing innocents and what this does to civil society b) The utility of information gathered under duress

    With respect to a), the point I am making is that the situation here is fundamentally different from the scenarios offered by popular media which you believe have influenced my thinking. The police in this case knew who would have the iformation within one degree of separation…because the “usual suspects” had been paid by the ISI in other circumstances to commit acts of violence. With respect to showing the actual torture, I am not sure if its graphic depiction would change anyone’s mind.

  7. the credits at the end of the film stated that the ‘captain’ received an honorary title for his handling of the investigation. which makes me think the irfan khan character is real. i can see an oscar for support role in this for him. nice review. surprisingly good film

  8. the credits at the end of the film stated that the ‘captain’ received an honorary title for his handling of the investigation. which makes me think the irfan khan character is real.

    That’s right — I forgot about that. And in fact the interview with Michael Winterbottom Dipanjan linked to clearly makes it sound like Captain is a real (if pseudonymous) person.

    I’ll make a correction in the post.

  9. Louiecypher,

    With respect to a), the point I am making is that the situation here is fundamentally different from the scenarios offered by popular media which you believe have influenced my thinking. The police in this case knew who would have the iformation within one degree of separation…because the “usual suspects” had been paid by the ISI in other circumstances to commit acts of violence. With respect to showing the actual torture, I am not sure if its graphic depiction would change anyone’s mind.

    Ok, sorry — I shouldn’t have presumed your background on this. I take back the “24″ reference.

    Let me see if I can explain why this makes me squeamish. First, I presume you’ll agree that the ethical power of the story of Daniel Pearl comes from his inarguable, absolute innocence. Here is a single, honorable individual whose life is taken in the name of a dehumanizing religious ideology. He did not deserve to be kidnapped; he did not deserve to die.

    But if unethical means are used to try and either free Daniel Pearl from his kidnappers or to get justice on his behalf after his death, a moral slipperiness of sorts does enter into the equation. Certainly, only a very twisted mind could argue that what the kidnappers did to Pearl and what the Pakistanis and the Americans did to the suspects in the case were EQUIVALENT. But a not-so-twisted mind could argue that what the authorities did in this case takes away some (not all) of the broader moral clarity that makes us root for Daniel to be freed.

    In this case, the film implies that “special interrogation techniques” were used against at least two suspects — people who happened to be implicated in the plot, and who have critical, time-sensitive pieces of information. But it is also implied that many other individuals were arrested over the course of the investigation. How many were tortured? How many people were tortured who ended up knowing nothing at all? If you commit torture to stop a kidnapped man from being murdered you perhaps are committing a smaller evil to prevent a bigger one. If you commit torture against someone without a concrete reason, how can your actions be judged? How can you know in advance what the outcome is going to be?

    The current Bush/Gonzales doctrine allows the use of techniques that don’t leave lasting physical damage. But as I understand it, the technique used against one of the suspects in the film (and this is Pakistani CID) — hanging him up with his hands directly above his head — can in fact leave lasting muscle damage. This is a slightly different issue — what might constitute “acceptable” use of force in interrogation — but in this case the technique shown in “A Mighty Heart” crosses even the Bush administration’s own fuzzy line.

    I still think the film, by only hinting at a couple of things, and by quick editing, tries to gloss over the problems here a bit too much. That said, I do appreciate Winterbottom’s commitment (again, in the interview Dipanjan linked to) to journalistic accuracy in putting in at least those scenes — even though people might then ask questions about it.

  10. If you commit torture to stop a kidnapped man from being murdered you perhaps are committing a smaller evil to prevent a bigger one.

    Amardeep, you’re glossing over louiecypher’s point that the torture in this case is not evil in the sense that it is being used against an innocent (or an unindicted person); you’re even conflating the different situations in subsequent sentences.

    Louiecypher suggests that ISI knew the men were responsible for a man’s impending murder. You then have to make the stronger ethical stand that (a) torture against an indicted accessory to an impending murderer (b) which would prevent the murder; is wrong. Are you willing to take this stand, as crisply?

  11. Amardeep: I will say for those of us that are less spiritually developed, upon whom Avalokiteshvara the Boddhisatva of Compassion does not smile, it would be best to pick an “everyman” as the victim when trying to create an emotinally powerful parable against torture. Maybe some poor, clearly innocent Pashtun farmer who ends up in Guantanamo because some warlord covets his wife or land and can buy some new toys with the US issued bounty.

    Per the slippery slope argument, this would presume that the nation in question is trying to preserve some state of relative innocence from which they can fall. What days of milk & honey are they saying au revoir to? I’m not arguing that Pakistan can turn itself into Sweden if they just electrocute enough jihadi huevos…all I am saying is that I am not sure what could have been done differently to break the case given this near overnight shift in policy when these guys went from being henna haired heros to liabilities to the state.

  12. How does film compare with Winterbottom’s “In the World?” . No famous faces there. Genuis flick. Did he have to cast Angelina Joile in AMH? Is he beginning to sell out? This was such a great opportubity to cast a “discovery”. Someone whose expression from the movie are seared in your brain rather than AJ’s voguish demeanor.

  13. The Captain definitely was a real person (Irrfan talks about almost meeting him in an interview at the press roundtable a few weeks back), and in the book the movie’s based on, we see more of his humanity, when he comes to tell Mariane that Danny is dead.

    Reading the book spoiled the movie for me, because you don’t see hardly a glimmer of what an individual Danny was, and as Asra Nomani points out, without him, there would have been no movie.

  14. Hypertree,

    Louiecypher suggests that ISI knew the men were responsible for a man’s impending murder. You then have to make the stronger ethical stand that (a) torture against an indicted accessory to an impending murderer (b) which would prevent the murder; is wrong. Are you willing to take this stand, as crisply?

    Yes, I am. Torture, as a form of extra-judicial punishment inflicted arbitrarily by a law-enforcement officer, is a prima facie evil. Various arguments can be construed to justify it in certain situations, and my earlier comment was an attempt to respond to some of the construable exceptions.

    The Pakistani authorities (who I don’t think were actually ISI in this case, though I could be wrong about that) may have “known” in this case who they were dealing with, but without a fixed judicial method of determining when one “knows” and when one merely suspects or speculates, that isn’t sufficient.

  15. Nor am I particularly up in arms about the fact that Angelina Jolie, who is white, is here playing Mariane Pearl, who is biracial

    it should not matter that jolie is white or pearl is black. what’s important is that they are hot.

  16. Amardeep: Given the level of US pressure, I find it hard to believe that the ISI was not sharing information with the police in this case..I wonder why you feel it necessary to question this given the mandate to be cooperative coming all the way up from Mushie. We are talking about people who were on the ISI payroll and who had as sanctioned tactics the kidnapping of foreigners in India. But in any case, you see this as evil full stop so I guess there is no where to go with my argument. I guess we can both find relief in the fact that neither of us is likely to hold high public office where we might be confronted with such ethical challenges.

  17. Jolie? Feh. Yet another script reader in the long line of nepotism and cronyism that is Hollywood.

  18. A bit of trivia for computer scientists: Daniel Pearl is the son of Judea Pearl, one of the early researchers on Bayesian Networks and the notion of probabilistic models for AI.

    How well does the movie cover the political context around the investigation? Ultrabrown didn’t seem too impressed with that aspect of the story. Between that, and Asra Nomani’s disappointment at the editing out of Daniel Pearl, all that is left is a police procedural and the impact on the living. Those ingredients could certainly make for a good movie, but it might also feel dissatisfying.

  19. Are we not saying ABCD anymore? The PC-fication (yes, that’s a good pun) of America continues…

  20. Jolie? Feh. Yet another script reader in the long line of nepotism and cronyism that is Hollywood.

    People have known this about Hollywood for 75 years now.

    Get over it.

  21. 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)

    Seriously, I don’t understand these criticisms either. It is not as if she is playing some caricature, and reviews have generally commended her performance.

    I mean, if they wanted to be fair, they should really have waited to cast the unborn offspring of Salma Hayek and her French boyfriend.

  22. Apart from the brilliant acting, there wasn’t much to this movie. It was a perfunctory cinematic recounting of the events surrounding the kidnapping and beheading. If you were to close your eyes and imagine what happened, this movie is what you would imagine. No special insights into the characters or socio-cultural milieu

    SPOILER ALERT

    What is worse, the somewhat annoying redemption theme that plays out very cheesily in parts. I mean, with all due respect to the horror of Mariane’s personal experience, I had to wince at the cheesiness of the birth scene immediately following the beheading video. I found this movie hugely dissapointing after the subtlety and humanity of Winterbottom’s previous work.

    Has anyone read the memoir? Does the script depart laregely from it or does the weakness of the script go back to it?

  23. Apart from the brilliant acting, there wasn’t much to this movie. It was a perfunctory cinematic recounting of the events surrounding the kidnapping and beheading. If you were to close your eyes and imagine what happened, this movie is what you would imagine. No special insights into the characters or socio-cultural milieu

    Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    Sometimes it seems that if a movie has a certain rawness and deglamorization to it, certain audiences will respond positively to it simply for not looking like a mainstream film. But it IS like a mainstream film, or at least a certain breed of it. It looks just like Ridley Scott could have made this, only with natural lighting. Look at Winterbottom’s other films (I’ve only seen a few). He’s one of those frenetic editors, but he often has a unique, fascinating way of cutting his films that sets him apart from the Bruckheimer School of Dramamine. But not here. “Perfunctory” is the perfect word. Basically, it’s nothing more than a movie about an ongoing investigation. And lets face it. Investigation movies are BORING! That is, they’re boring unless they movie is about the investigation and nothing else. I’m reminded of another, much better investigation movie from eariler in the year. Zodiac was about the years long investigation of the Zodiac killer, but thematically, there was much more to it. It was also about, among other things, how obsession can take one over during an endless pursuit, and the investigators’ obsession neatly paralleled the killers. There is nothing in A Mighty Heart to suggest it’s about anything other than the surface story. Which is horrowing in and of itself, but that’s not enough to make a great movie.

  24. Speaking of movies, SiCKo is great, and for those just foaming at the mouth for lack of a desi angle, there are lots of Brit Desi’s featured in it. Michael Moore has really made a unifying movie here, and really hit a button with his analysis of the health care industry.

  25. Shahnaz,

    I read the book a few years ago, just picked it up again to leaf through after seeing the movie, and it (the movie) follows the same pattern, more or less….starts with the kidnapping, goes into flashbacks, comes back to the day-by-day hunt for Danny.

    Where Mariane’s book pulls you in is the amount and the quality of the information about her and Danny’s meeting, falling in love, and their life together. It quickly establishes that they were a great match in every way, and they enjoyed working as journalists and exploring the world together.

    Then, the book also makes you care about Asra and the Captain.

    I felt that in the movie, Danny, Asra and the Captain were just faint shadows, whereas Mariane was the only substantial, flesh-and-blood character.

  26. Where Mariane’s book pulls you in is the amount and the quality of the information about her and Danny’s meeting, falling in love, and their life together. It quickly establishes that they were a great match in every way, and they enjoyed working as journalists and exploring the world together.

    Thanks, Filmiholic. I will check out the book. It sounds far more interesting.

  27. I really see why movies need to be made so soon after every single incident when it offers nothing new. I saw the Daniel Pearl doc on HBO and a few other shows about him. I just cant see how this movie will top that. Why not give it a few years of perspective and make the movie then?

    I was not bothered by Jolie’s casting choice. Let’s get over the racial thing. Though I am still terrified by her awful accents in the past (Alexander).

    Noah Wylie would have probably been a much better choice for Daniel Pearl and would have pleased Nosrani more. Noah did a great job acting as Steve Jobs in Pirates of Silicon Valley. He probably would have made Pearl not appear as bland.

  28. Green angel,

    It happened in early 2002. They were in Afghanistan and then Pakistan reporting on 9/11-related stories, and if memory serves from the book (don’t have it handy right now), they had relocated to Bombay shortly before 9/11, or right after…

    Pravin, totally agree with you on Noah Wyle.

  29. I thought it was shallow propaganda, actually. Didn’t do a real analysis at all.

    he is a propagandist, but not nessicarily a shallow one. He happens to be a very good propogandist. i respect that…

  30. he is a propagandist, but not nessicarily a shallow one.

    Michael Moore is often just a smarter and more articulate version of the EveryAmerican sitting in his wifebeaters on his couch on a weekend afternoon, drinking his sixth Budweiser, and spinning conspiracy theories of how everbody’s out to get him.

  31. For me, that doesn’t work: either we support the use of torture, or we are against it.

    Senor Amardeep: the world does not operate in black and white – with respect to torture or to anything else for that matter.

  32. all that is left is a police procedural and the impact on the living.

    Police Procedural? Sounds like CSI: Karachi. (That would be an awesome show!)

  33. What’s with typing the word “brown” to prevent spam? Give me a break. Am I missing something here? Why brown?

    Please don’t talk about torture. Here disgusting buffoons are all but terrorizing the civilized world, with attacks in Srinagar, Kargil, London and Glasgow. And you sit in your lavish home and talk about torture. Get over it. Guantanomo Bay is the right way to go! Stop patronizing the wrong doers. Bush is right. Either you are with us or not.