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A Political Sleight-of-Hand


A Mighty Heart
Paramount Home Entertainment
DVD Release 2008, 108 minutes
Directed by Michael Winterbottom


This film tells the tale of Daniel Pearl, a journalist working for the Wall Street Journal, who was kidnapped and murdered by a jihadist group in Karachi in January 2002. However, it focuses mainly on Pearl’s wife, Mariane, who was heavily pregnant at the time of the kidnap, and on the ultimately ineffectual search for Pearl carried out by the Pakistani and US intelligence services.

The acting is certainly very effective, and Angelina Jolie in particular is very convincing in the role of Mariane. And director Winterbottom does a good job of capturing the tense, chaotic nature of Karachi.

However, the film, regardless of how well it performs at the box-office or in the DVD sales charts, is ultimately a political sleight-of-hand.

While it justifiably highlights the terrible suffering of Pearl’s wife and family, it portrays the various non-American characters in the film as (at best) mere mouthpieces. I don’t know if it was just the DVD version that I watched, but for long stretches of the film (including some key moments) the dialogue was primarily in Urdu, with no subtitles available. While this may have helped to capture the tension felt by those non-Urdu speakers who were actually present as events unfolded, it also created the impression that there is an uncrossable divide between the incomprehensible non-white hordes and the fully human and transparent beings speaking English in American or European accents.

Although bits of the film are genuinely realistic, other bits are almost laughingly unrealistic, such as the avuncular portrayal of the American intelligence officer who reassuringly tells Mariane that they’ll find Pearl once a few preliminary arrests have been made, because of the methods “they” (the Pakistani secret services) are happy to use. The unspoken implication that “they” but not “us” use or condone torture will fool no one acquainted with the basic facts about “extraordinary rendition”.

That the terrorists are always “they” and never western governments acting in our name is made clear by Mariane’s comments following confirmation of her husband’s murder. In a radio broadcast she informs the audience that Pearl is not the only victim of terrorism that month: at least 10 Pakistani’s have been murdered by Al Qaeda in the same period. Fair enough, she’s just lost her husband in horrific circumstances, but that this is the best the film can do by way of citing other examples of terrorism - at a time when American B-52s are pounding countless innocent Afghani civilians into the dust - reveals clearly the assumption underlying the film: western governments, unlike the dark-skinned and incomprehensible jihadists, are themselves incapable of terrorist activity.

Overall, then, although the film is dramatic and compelling, its entirely one-sided portrayal of the “war on terror” won’t go unnoticed by anyone with a bare modicum of political nous.

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