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Movie Review

One more interview.

Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl needed just one more interview before he and his pregnant wife, Mariane (who's also a journalist), could leave the bewildering city of Karachi, Pakistan. They'd been there for several months, first covering the U.S.-led coalition takedown of the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan, then the crush of Afghan refugees that flooded into Pakistan.

But the interview is delicate and dangerous—a conversation with a suspected terrorist just months after 9/11. Friends and officials caution Danny to stay in public places. As long as he does that, they say, he should be OK. So with that, Danny hires a taxi, kisses his wife goodbye and rides away, casting one final glance back at Mariane.

And then he disappears.

Danny misses a dinner party, and Mariane begins to worry. She picks up the phone and starts calling—first his cell, then those of his sources. She talks with the man who set up the interview. He's evasive. She contacts local police, the American consulate and fellow journalists. Mariane's house becomes a 24-hour rescue compound, complete with fax machines, six phone lines and armed security guards to keep the teeming media at bay.

The operation to find Danny becomes a race against time. Mariane and her allies must navigate the bewildering landscape of Islamic extremism and learn who and where the kidnappers are before Danny is killed—a very real possibility. And they must find a way to do all this in Karachi, one of the most crowded, chaotic cities in the world.

"How do you find one man amongst all of this?" Mariane asks.


Positive Elements

"In his journalism, I never saw anyone so honest," Mariane says of Danny. Though the film rarely shows Danny except in flashback, the audience feels his honesty and integrity. The reporter is an amiable and fearless everyman—one who's not afraid to mention his Jewish roots to a source who believes the Jews orchestrated 9/11; one who smiles with a gun at his head.

Danny delights in his wife, and the audience is treated to several flashbacks picturing him and Mariane in happier times. He tells her, "You can get old and fat and grey and grumpy, but don't lose your smile." Danny loves his unborn child, Adam, too. "How's my little embryo?" he coos at one point. "Amazing you can love somebody you never met," he says at another, rubbing his hand on Mariane's stomach and whispering to his son in utero.

But it's Mariane and her determination to find her lost husband that are showcased. It is she, not Danny, who appears to have inspired the film's title. And she handles the search for her abducted husband with dogged grace. When asked in an interview what message she might have for her husband, Mariane says simply, "I love you." Later, even as hope fades, she sends those words in a cell phone text message to him as well.

Others participating in the search, while not always likeable, are laudable: A Pakistani captain tracks the abductors with grim determination. Mariane's friend and fellow journalist Asra Nomani is a fierce tigress in her own right, acting as an advocate on her friend's behalf. Danny's Wall Street Journal editor, John Bussey, flies to Pakistan to lend a hand, and other reporters drop everything to help find Danny before it's too late.

Spiritual Content

A Mighty Heart mostly treats faith with clinical detachment. Still, the story's religious underpinnings are obvious: Islamic extremism is at the crux of the story, thus radical Muslim religious leaders become prime suspects in the search. We hear that those who have abducted Danny aim to "purify Islam through violence." Accordingly, they're willing to go to the greatest of lengths to advance jihad and the cause of Allah. One suspect is hauled away shouting, "God is great! God is great!"

More generally, Pakistan's predominantly Muslim culture is depicted in passing shots of men praying and footage of elaborate mosques. An Islamic holy day based on Ibrahim's willingness to sacrifice Ishmael (the Muslim interpretation of the Abraham/Isaac story in Genesis 22) is referenced as well. We're told that animals are sacrificed and their meat parceled out to the family, to neighbors and to the poor. During a thundershower, one of Mariane's neighbors says of the downpour, "God is raining. God is coming down in the rain."

Mariane says that Danny was a non-practicing Jew, while she herself is Buddhist. We see her meditating and chanting on a couple occasions. And in a flashback to their wedding, a speaker defines Buddhism as a faith that helps adherents find inner strength, beauty and courage. The film suggests that Mariane's Buddhist faith, combined with her obvious strength of character, help her deal with Danny's abduction and death.

Sexual Content

There's a fleeting scene in which Danny and Mariane engage in sex; the audience only sees Mariane's fingers press briefly into her husband's bare back. Before the birth, her pregnant belly is shown several times, including two scenes where we glimpse it (along with her shoulders) protruding from a generously bubble-filled bath.

Elsewhere, Mariane, Asra and a CNN reporter wear cleavage-baring shirts. A flashback pictures Mariane dancing in a club wearing a shoulder- and midriff-revealing top as her husband watches her appreciatively.

Violent Content

A Mighty Heart is laced with menace, but violence is typically suggested, not seen. Viewers see animals held down in preparation for sacrifice, but the killings aren't shown. There are two gun skirmishes when Pakistani police pick up suspects, but the camera doesn't even pause to let the audience know who's shooting at whom or whether anyone gets hurt. Suspects in the case are repeatedly and roughly jostled on their way to the police station.

It's what happens at the station where things get ticklish. The Pakistani government is embarrassed that a journalist could be kidnapped on its soil, and a U.S. consulate representative says local officials will pull out all the stops to get information on the abductees, including torture. One suspect, presumably naked but filmed from only the waist up, is strung up by his wrists and, apparently, tortured. But all the torture is going on below the waist, so the audience never sees it: We only hear his screams and, more powerfully, his sobs.

Danny's abduction, captivity and eventual murder would've been treated in splatterfest fashion by some directors. But Michael Winterbottom never go there. He shows the doomed journalist's plight solely through the eyes of Mariane and her cadre of allies. She sees what we saw in 2002: The grainy photos, the videotaped statements, the e-mails from his captors. We only learn later, from Mariane, that Danny was chained to a car engine, or that he repeatedly attempted escape but was recaptured. As for Danny's last, horrific appearance on video—where he is beheaded—A Mighty Heart watches others watch the video. We don't see the footage ourselves, and when Mariane is told about the video, she screams, "I never, never want to see it!"

If only other R-rated films had such an aversion to showcasing violence.

Other violent images include a shirtless 9/11 victim covered with ash being carried by two rescue workers, a bloody body in a morgue and corpses shown in news footage.

Crude or Profane Language

The f-word is uttered close to 20 times, and the s-word is used a half-dozen. Characters rarely use other swear words, though Jesus' name is taken in vain one time and God's three or four. "B--tard" is also used once.

Drug and Alcohol Content

The Pakistani police captain is rarely seen without a cigarette in his mouth. Other minor characters also smoke. Mariane and her friends often have wine with dinner.

Other Negative Elements

Police cut neighboring phone lines to supply Mariane's house with more phones. The Pakistani captain declares that the police are holding a suspect's cousins in custody: "We will fight kidnappers with kidnappings," he says.

Two characters live down to well-established stereotypes of how Americans are seen by those in other countries. A domineering FBI agent is reluctant to share information even though the team working on Danny's abduction has just talked about the importance of clear communication. And another influential American working with the Pakistani captain is unhealthily enthusiastic at the prospect of witnessing the torture of captured suspects.

While Mariane is giving birth, the camera dips low enough to hint at, though not explicitly reveal, her labors.


A Mighty Heart lasts about two hours. The real story of Daniel Pearl rolls on.

In March, 2007, an Islamic sheikh held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, bragged, "I decapitated with my blessed right hand the head of the American Jew, Daniel Pearl, in the city of Karachi, Pakistan." On June 13—nine days before the film was scheduled to open—the Wall Street Journal reported that Pakistan has held for the last five years, in secret, two suspects in Pearl's murder.

"Pakistani investigators familiar with the case said authorities concealed the two men's detention because they could contradict key evidence used in the 2002 conviction of four other men in Mr. Pearl's murder," the Journal reported. Such is the nature of news that makes it to movie screens: The stories continue long after the credits roll and everyone's gone home.

The makers of A Mighty Heart understand that. The film, based on a book written by Mariane Pearl, holds as closely as possible to Pearl's own journalistic ethics. It's a no-nonsense work that doesn't jump to heavy-handed conclusions and never tries to simplify. Rough, jerky camera work and low-key dialogue give the film a documentary feel. Outside Danny and Mariane themselves, it treats its subjects and characters with journalistic detachment. This film resides firmly in facts, and rarely wanders away.

A few of Mariane's comments near the conclusion, however, perhaps suggest how the filmmakers would like us to engage with this tragic story:

First, Mariane refuses to see herself as a victim. She tells those who've worked so diligently to save her husband, "You did not fail." Instead, she implies that it's Danny's bloodthirsty captors who've actually failed. "The kidnappers' point is to terrorize," she says. "I am not terrorized." Mariane refuses to give in to the fear these radicals hope to inspire, and she recognizes that she must face her heartbreak head-on if she's to avoid being crippled by bitterness. "I decided that before Adam was born, I had to confront everything that had happened," she says. Her son's birth at the end of the film underscores the possibility of new life amid the tragedy of death.

Nor does Mariane believe her husband's life was inherently more valuable than those of less-privileged Pakistanis. In an interview after Danny's death, she reminds television viewers that 10 other people were killed by terrorists in Pakistan the month her husband died, and that those families are suffering just as she is.

Finally, Mariane offers her own explanation for terrorism. "Wherever there is misery," she suggests, "they [terrorists] find people." Thus, the film arguably identifies poverty, not radical Islam, as the root cause of the terror it chronicles. Whether or not this explanation oversimplifies what has otherwise been a gritty, complex portrayal of Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan is worth serious consideration by anyone concerned with the rancorous relationship between radical Islam and the West.

For such a brutally heart-rending story—and one in which the profanity is more explicit than violence that's mostly implied, not shown—A Mighty Heart celebrates personal courage and journalistic integrity, laments terrorism and lauds the human spirit's ability to endure.

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