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A Mighty Heart’s Reel Differences

By Patrick Cucci

[1] Idealistically, film can be used as a means of gaining an understanding of a historical event. By watching a historical film, the implicit hope is to learn about something we have either never known before or wish to understand more clearly. The difference between film and a text, though, is arguably tied up in the decisions made by the director and screenwriter. If we think about history as a real event, then we'd like to assume it is based on the truth. Real history is black and white; we have facts and evidence and answers for questions. When thinking about history within the realm of the reel, though, we need to understand that certain creative licenses and liberties are taken. Reel history is left up for personal interpretations and perspectives. Within a filmic context, the r-e-e-l acts as a function of the r-e-a-l. This relationship between the reel (film) and real (history) is one that is at work in director Michael Winterbottom's A Mighty Heart (2007).

[2] Winterbottom's adaptation of Mariane Pearl's book has come under certain scrutiny because of the path he chose take. Critics argued that Daniel Pearl's absence in the film seems odd. Questions were asked as to why screenwriter John Orloff chose not to grant a greater role for Dan Futterman (who plays Danny) in the film's script. For Winterbottom it was not crucial to have included Pearl on screen. In an interview that can be viewed on the "special features" of the DVD copy of A Mighty Heart (A Journey of Passion: The Making of A Mighty Heart), Angelina Jolie spoke about the film and its implications saying, "Before we started filming, everybody talked about the security concern, they talk about, if you get this wrong politically what it would mean, all these different reasons not to do it. We could fail. We could be judged for so many things. It's dangerous, it's… But, if we get it right. If by some small chance we get it right, maybe we can do a little something towards bringing people back together, or at least looking at each other in another light, and that is our big hope for everybody here." By "getting it right" Jolie is speaking to reenacting Mariane's book, thus replaying the episode from her very own perspective. If this did in fact happen, then Winterbottom and his cast would be furthering the work that Danny Pearl tried to propagate during his lifetime, which was providing information in an unbiased light, i.e., as Jolie said, "bringing people back together, or at least looking at it in another light." The film was, after all, based on Mariane's book about the episode and in order to do a greater justice to Mariane and her memoir, Winterbottom felt it was more necessary to stick as closely to the primary text as possible. By using the real as a manuscript for the reel, Winterbottom hoped that he would be able to render an honest depiction of what happened.

[3] Because Mariane and Danny had been in Pakistan during a wartime period, the film has in some ways been labeled as one pertaining to the "war on terror." A Mighty Heart is a very different film about the war, though. It is a celebration of human triumph during the darkest times. These dark circumstances were shaped because of the geopolitical climate during that time period. In her review of the film, Asra Nomani (a colleague of Danny's and personal friend) said, "The character I saw on film was flat -- nerdy, bland and boring." Where Winterbottom may have fallen short in his rendition is regarding Danny's personality. Asra's feelings are quite straight forward; the real Danny Pearl did not shine through on screen. His quirky sense of humor and the personal traits that made him the man he was were non-existent. An example such as this one lends itself to a larger discussion of the differences found between Mariane's book and the film.

[4] The film primarily sticks to the shape and structure of Mariane's book by including the most essential details to the kidnapping episode, but from the perspective of Mariane inside the house where she was staying with Asra. In the film's initial scene we find Danny coming home to Asra's house after having been out in the field. This is one of the few scenes in which Futterman has an active role in the film aside from the flashbacks that Winterbottom includes (especially at the end) that point towards the romantic times of their relationship. Danny and Mariane have a short scene in the film that mirrors the initial chapter of the book. In both the film and text, Mariane and Danny lie in bed while Danny caresses and talks to her pregnant stomach. By watching the film you gain some obvious inkling as to how much he cares for his unborn son, but the text goes into much further detail. In her book Mariane talks about the day Danny found out about the gender of the fetus. She quotes him as saying, "BOY! IT'S A BOY! WHOO HOO!! Rock n Roll!! F-in A, man! We BAD, dude, We F-in BAD!!" (10). Just in this little excerpt the reader can gain the sense of excitement and joy he had for his child because of the fact that he was about to father a baby boy. This type of emotion was absent in the film. Understandably 108 minutes of screen time cannot include everything, but some type of indication of Danny on a more personable level may have added to a positive reception of the film among critics.

[5] Aside from the short flashbacks Mariane has that Winterbottom splices into the film, the viewer cannot truly grasp the admiration that the two shared for one another as human beings. Describing the way he viewed the world and his profession, Mariane says, "He weaves his way through a world filled with narrow, conflicting views. He peers down alleyways, connects the dots, explains the butterfly effect -- how the slightest movement in one place can have massive consequences somewhere else… He makes me believe in the power of journalism" (13). Mariane's aforementioned admiration also extended into the professional realm as well. Speaking for them both, Mariane mentions, "We see ourselves as tightrope walkers, careful and insistent in our quest to bridge the world. In his work, Danny struggles to keep free of dogma and allegiance. It's not easy to remain impartial, but it sharpens Danny's vision and independence. He doesn't represent a country or flag, just the pursuit or truth" (29). The film portrays Danny in such a mediocre light as a journalist that it serves as a discredit to him as a professional. His passion for his profession is not exactly shown. Mariane notes such details like these in her book, and the reader can gain a true personal understanding of Danny Pearl as a husband and father-to-be as well as a journalist. Even with respect to Danny being Jewish, the film does not shed light on this information until Mariane confronts Captain during the investigation (0.34.23).

[6] The structure of Mariane's book is such that the chapters alternate between ones replaying the episode as it took place and personal descriptions of their marriage and relationship. Mariane speaks about Danny and his family in Chapter Two saying, "Both of Danny's parents are Jewish. His mother, Ruth, was born in Baghdad, Iraq, a descendant of Iraqi Jews dating back either to the destruction of Solomon's temple (586 B.C.) or somewhat later -- the second exile (70 A.D.). His father, Judea, was born in Israel, but his family were relatively newly returned to the Middle East" (30). Information like this helps the reader extrapolate who Danny was. Mariane notes that Danny resisted being defined by his heritage but would never deny his Jewish background if he were confronted about it. Commenting on that subject, Mariane says, "Yes, he sees himself as a Jew and he sees himself as an American. But Danny is also a journalist and musician. The way I see him, Danny is a free man" (31). This type of insight is crucial to understanding Danny Pearl as a human being not just the headlined "slain reporter." Assuming that Winterbottom could have incorporated this information into the film, reviewers might have been less apt to offer criticism.

[7] Aside from the specific portrayal or lack thereof for Danny in the film, A Mighty Heart is accurate in terms of the text on various levels. The scenes that include the emails from the terrorists with the pictures of Danny, the deadlines they give, and the several lies pertaining to his actual death that turn out not to be Danny are all retold in Mariane's book. While reading the text, a true sense of suspense is built up. Those same anxieties and tensions are successfully incorporated in Winterbottom's film. To his credit he was able to create an environment that transcends the screen, including the audience as if they were in the same room as Mariane, Asra, and the rest of the investigative team. Despite knowing the obvious outcome of Danny's fate, both the text and film are successful in anticipating some type of formal climax. In Winterbottom's mind, by purposefully leaving Danny out of the script he was able to create an overcasting sense of loss, which was what Mariane was experiencing.

[8] The one visual or image in the film, though, that grows into the focal point of the movie is the tree diagram that Asra constructs. In the book Mariane explains how it was originally one piece of paper with Danny's name on it that was continually added to (until it spanned an entire 12'x7' wall). In the film, Winterbottom takes advantage of his creative license and utilizes a whiteboard to portray the same image. Danny's name rests at the center and it continually grows as names, numbers, and other pieces of evidence are revealed. Winterbottom spoke about this concept during an interview on the special features of the DVD: "The significance of the chart in a way was so that you start off thinking that the chart is going to reveal a pattern that allows you to understand what has gone on and eventually reveals the people who did it and their relationship to each other, maybe, even why they did it. And then at some point, it seems to me, that at some point you should feel, Actually, you know what? This chart is just showing that you're never going to understand it." This realization for his audience then adds an emotional impact of helplessness. While someone watches Mariane and realizes how vulnerable she may be despite her strong appearance, you cannot help but think that she is alone. The complexity of the situation then feels overwhelming, and we later witness how Mariane will turn to others for help. By not having her companion, she is left to look elsewhere for protection and comfort. To that note, it can be argued that Danny's absence sets the stage for Mariane's relationship with Asra and Captain specifically seen in the film.

[9] During an interview for "A Journey of Passion: The Making of A Mighty Heart," Archie Panjabi (Asra Nomani) says, "This film is about a woman and her tragedy and what she makes of that tragedy." In her time of despair Mariane connected with Asra. Assuming this incident never would have happened, the two would not have shared the relationship they do now without having gone through this ordeal. In this regard, the film can be observed in a feminist light because of how strongly the two are portrayed. Both highly educated females, Mariane and Asra represent independent women who are devoted to finding someone they cared about dearly. Asra was a close colleague of Danny's, and her medical background inspired her tactical approach to mapping out the chart that was mentioned earlier. Asra proved to be just as committed to finding Danny as Mariane. Despite having left Karachi after Danny was confirmed dead, Asra has continued on her work in Danny's name. At Georgetown University's School of Continuing Studies, Asra has founded an investigative journalism project devoted to uncovering more information relating to Danny Pearl's murder. By conducting this class Asra and the other instructors hope to investigate the questions of who really killed Danny and why they killed him. The project will also seek to examine the wider relationship between the Muslim world and the media. This initiative in itself exemplifies the type of person that Asra Nomani is. Regardless of the fact that most of the men accused of abducting and killing Danny have been brought to justice, Asra is still seeking answers. The impact that Danny had on her life was great enough that she feels the needs to uncover more information regarding those people who are still at large. Captain represented another individual with whom Mariane confided in and depended on for trust.

[10] When trying to understand the complexity of this dilemma it must be understood that there was a lot of political wariness. Elements that contributed to this complexity pointed towards the fact that both Danny and Mariane were westerners smack-dab in the center of a Middle Eastern conflict that the United States was responsible (in some way) for. Danny was also Jewish and represented for the terrorists a type of figurehead (al Qaeda goes after symbols: The World Trade Center and now an American Jewish journalist). At the core of this predicament there is a Jew who is missing, a Buddhist (Mariane) who is trying to find him, and a mostly Muslim government who was supposed to be aiding in the search effort. To make sense of this religious three-way, Captain therefore represented the Muslim community. Despite the terrorists' religious claims to Islam, Captain represents the kind of people the world would rather connect with when they hear the word "Muslim." Mariane's relationship to Captain is arguably similar to the dynamics that a father and daughter might share.

[11] Mariane explains how Captain has a way about him that is very trusting. The manner in which he speaks to Mariane and offers guidance is reminiscent of how her father had spoken to her. In one instance she compares the two men after Captain has told her to calm down and relax. Captain was cognoscente of Mariane's pregnancy and said, "I am a married man and I am a father. I know everything about pregnancy. I know about sentiments and hormones. I know everything. And I will tell you this: We will find your Danny. But you must take care of yourself and the baby" (Pearl 67). In her text Mariane says, "While obeying him, I realize nobody has spoken to me that way since my father's death twenty-seven years ago… Normally I do not like being ordered around, but this is different. It's okay, I think, I can trust Captain" (67). The trust she bestows in Captain is integral, because now he can represent a connection between the politics of the Pakistani authorities, who are largely Muslim, and Mariane who searches for her Jewish husband. This relationship is portrayed in both the film and the book, but, again, Mariane's memoir goes into far greater detail than Winterbottom can represent in his movie. In the film, Captain is very supportive and leads the raids that go after those allegedly connected with Danny's abduction. Irrfan Khan's (Captain) tone and mannerism are believable to an extent that his performance does not seem forced or fabricated. While watching the film the audience can also develop a trust with Captain, for a moment believing that they will actually find Danny amongst all the madness that is Karachi. In these moments, then, it is apparent that the reel is serving justice to the real.

[12] Other inherent differences between the script and Mariane's text are tied up in specific details that she relates after the final scene when she learns of Danny's execution. In her text Mariane notes how she meets with both foreign and domestic leaders. She has meetings with President Bush and the First Lady, Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf, and French President Jacques Chirac. These descriptions follow the climax of the novel but are not rendered on screen. Both the film and book give a chilling account of the sadness when Mariane is finally informed that Danny was killed. Angelina Jolie puts forth her most impressive portrayal when she hurls out blood-curdling shrieks. The description in the book is just as emotionally moving as it is when Winterbottom captures Jolie on film. After weeks of investigations and holding strong, Mariane finally reaches a climax and lets loose an outburst of emotions that cannot be rivaled. Mariane describes her experience after the news is broken to her saying, "I slam the door, and with all my might, I cry out. I have never screamed like this before. I can feel that I'm screaming, but the sound that rips up out of me is alien, as if everything is coming out of me. I sound like an animal caught in a bone crushing trap" (188). The conclusion of the film then seems to act as a clasp to enclose the climactic death scream scene. Mariane goes back to France and has her son, Adam. Winterbottom's use of the childbearing scene offers similar howls from Mariane, but, instead, this time they come as a result of new life. In a theatrical light, the dramatic climax of Danny's death is brought full circle with the bearing of his son. In the final pages of her book Mariane makes reference to an email that she found regarding Danny and how he had been cut into ten pieces and buried in a four-foot grave. She learned this terrible news by accident through an email attachment not meant for her eyes, which the movie also discloses. In a different light, though, Mariane is able to make better of the situation, saying, "The email refers to ‘the remains.' For me, what actually remains of Danny is in my belly" (212). This serves as one last projection of triumph, because although Danny was killed, his legacy will live on through her son.

[13] By closely structuring the film to the skeleton of Mariane's memoir, Winterbottom was able to achieve success in portraying her specific perspective. If Winterbottom were to have tried to over fabricate a "Hollywood" spin on this story, then it would have arguably disgraced Daniel Pearl and what he stood for as a passionately professional journalist. Details that pertained to the terrorists involved in Danny's abduction and execution were tastefully left out. Winterbottom was able to include them just enough so that the audience was aware of them as an overshadowing force without having them imposing on the story he was trying to tell, which was Mariane's. To have included scenes of them and their treatment of Danny would have villainized them in a way that they would have wished. By attempting to be as honest as possible in his recreation of the events and how they played out, Winterbottom actually imitates Pearl's mantra as a journalist about being unbiased and a voice of impartial truth. Because Danny unfortunately did not survive this ordeal, the only other truthful words that could have possibly been spoken had to have come from Mariane, so by directing the film from her perspective, A Mighty Heart's real history was portrayed in a reel light.