Michael Winterbottom’s docudrama A Mighty Heart isn’t the first movie about the 2002 murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Danny Pearl by Islamic militants. That would be The Slaughter of the Spy-Journalist, the Jew Daniel Pearl, the notorious three-and-a-half-minute video made by his killers, which included shots of a masked executioner severing Pearl’s head and holding it aloft by the hair. Posted on jihadist Web sites and still available online, the video must have been viewed by thousands of people over the past five years. I’m not one of them, because in my opinion watching something like that amounts to complicity in a terrorist act. But the video serves as a stark reminder that the media are a key battlefield in global jihad.

Adapted from the memoir by Pearl’s widow, A Mighty Heart functions primarily as a suspense film, and it manages to be gripping even though the outcome is already known. Mariane Pearl was pregnant when the couple flew to Karachi, Pakistan, in December 2001. As South Asia bureau chief for the Journal, Danny was following up on the arrest of would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid and exploring a possible link between Al Qaeda and Pakistani intelligence. After he left to interview an Islamic spiritual leader and never returned, Mariane spent the next four weeks working closely with U.S. and Pakistani law enforcement officials to find him, their hunt endlessly complicated by political tensions between India, Pakistan, and the West. But the story of Mariane Pearl, a professional journalist herself, is most valuable in showing how the kidnappers and the rescue team fought to control the media coverage and how responsible journalism ought to function in an age of Islamic extremism.

Now that scores of journalists have died in Iraq, it’s easy to forget how shocking it was to see terrorists treat a reporter as a combatant. As Mariane stresses in her book, Danny Pearl was no cowboy; he understood the risks he was taking as a correspondent in the world’s hot spots, and after a late-90s assignment in Kosovo he’d sent the Journal a detailed memo recommending safety procedures for writers on assignment. According to Mariane the paper never acted on it, and when she reported Danny’s disappearance to his editor, John Bussey, who’d been pressuring his reporters for better Pakistan coverage, his response was an unreassuring “What do you think we should do?” Once the Journal recognized the gravity of the situation, Bussey flew to Karachi to serve as part of the rescue team, and Mariane sketches a fairly affecting portrait of a man racked with guilt over his initial lack of engagement with his reporter. In the interest of maintaining dramatic momentum Danny’s memo to the Journal has been omitted from the movie, but actor Denis O’Hare efficiently conveys Bussey’s worry and gnawing sense of responsibility.

Because foreign correspondents are in the business of gathering information, they’re routinely accused of being spies, and the blurry line between journalism and espionage proves especially dangerous to Pearl once he’s been kidnapped. Early in the ordeal, Mariane foolishly gives personal photos of Danny to a reporter for the Pakistani newspaper Jang and later finds them used to illustrate a story fingering Danny as a Mossad agent–a virtual death sentence for a man held by Islamic fundamentalists. Later she and others from the rescue team meet with the Pakistani interior minister and find him openly suspicious, asking which of them is the CIA agent and demanding to know what business a reporter might have interviewing a radical Muslim leader. The fact that Danny works for a famously capitalist newspaper doesn’t help, and the rescue team expends a fair amount of energy just trying to advertise his independence from the intelligence communities of India, Israel, and the United States.

Both the kidnappers and the rescuers factor the media into their strategies, though the competitiveness of international news organizations seems to favor the kidnappers. Their first communication is an e-mail sent to Jang, the Washington Post, and the New York Times, with attached photographs of a captive Pearl that circle the globe. A media frenzy erupts, and before long Fox, CNN, and Al Jazeera have all set up cameras outside the private home that serves as the rescuers’ command center. After another e-mail announces that Danny will be killed in 24 hours unless Pakistani prisoners are released from the U.S. detention camp at Guantanamo, the rescuers mount a media counterattack: clad in a Kashmiri shawl, Mariane grants a televised interview to CNN. She resolves not to oblige the kidnappers by losing her cool, but after the interview one of the CNN people expresses dismay that she didn’t break down on camera.

Of course any discussion about the media’s role in the Pearl kidnapping leads inexorably to the execution video, which surfaced on February 21, 2002, and confirmed Pearl’s death beyond a doubt. Controversy was immediate: the Pearl family and the White House condemned CBS News for broadcasting parts of the video in May 2002, and as late as March 2007 Wikipedia contributors were debating the appropriateness of including a link to the video on Pearl’s biographical page. “As painful or offensive as it may be,” one of them points out, “Daniel Pearl is notable because of his death and the fact that there’s a video of it.” The same reasoning applies to the movie: if not for the video, A Mighty Heart probably would never have been made. A fair amount of its tension comes from wondering whether we’ll have to confront the real-life atrocity, though in the end only one moment from the video is re-created: Pearl’s declaration of his Jewish heritage (including a proud, unsolicited revelation that there’s a street in Israel named after his grandfather). After Mariane announces her decision to watch the video, Winterbottom deftly cuts to a closeup of her howling at the top of her lungs–not in horror but in childbirth.

The movie’s thoughtful treatment of international journalism was dealt a brief and farcical setback last week when reporters hoping to interview Angelina Jolie, who plays Mariane Pearl, were asked to sign a legal document prohibiting them from using the interview in any way “disparaging, demeaning or derogatory to Ms. Jolie.” A fracas ensued and the document was rescinded, but the story made a mockery of the movie’s premiere, a benefit for the nonprofit organization Reporters Without Borders. This may seem like a silly footnote, but it squares with the book’s and movie’s sometimes unflattering portraits of the media. When Danny disappears Mariane becomes as hot an interview as Jolie, and after news of his death circulates a TV journalist asks her if she’s watched the execution video. The question seems horribly callous, but it’s just another example of a reporter going too far in a world where boundaries are ill defined.

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