Given a broadband connection and a little persistence, you will be able to locate online a short video titled “The Slaughter of the Spy-Journalist, the Jew Daniel Pearl.” Made in February 2002 and circulated continually ever since, it is, first and above all, the record of a murder carried out in Pakistan by jihadis with a Wall Street Journal reporter as their victim. But to call this artifact a record is also to say that it is an audiovisual production: something that had a budget (undisclosed), cast (secured by kidnapping), script, director and distribution scheme. Only a madman would discuss “The Slaughter” in formal cinematic terms, but only a fool would deny it’s a film.
Michael Winterbottom’s film A Mighty Heart, based on the memoir of the same title by Pearl’s widow, Mariane, therefore belongs to a peculiarly self-conscious genre: that of movies about making movies. Here, too, you would have to be dead to all sense to consider form before content, since this film’s claim on your attention has to do with its veracity: You are to believe you’re seeing a more-or-less accurate account of a real event. And yet, true to type, A Mighty Heart also invites you to pause over its aesthetic features, which include a star performance by Angelina Jolie (as Mariane) and a distinctive visual style (created by Winterbottom and his frequent collaborator, cinematographer Marcel Zyskind).
The paradox of this artifice is that it makes A Mighty Heart more honest. “The Slaughter” belongs to the most dishonest of genres, propaganda, shot to satisfy hatred and incite further violence. Since its release, it has also circulated (in image and description) as a kind of pornography, enjoyed by those Westerners who get hot and bothered at the thought of Muslim hordes. But even though A Mighty Heart acknowledges (without showing) this film-within-a-film, it does so without sensationalism, fathoming the horror of “The Slaughter” yet refraining from any attempt to crank up the audience. This is a moral choice made possible by the creation of a certain aesthetic distance–and I’m not sure anyone but Winterbottom could have pulled it off.
A chronic confounder of expectations, he has taken special pleasure over the years in merging fiction with documentary, whether his story was set in Manchester (as in the rockudrama 24 Hour Party People) or in the part of the world where Daniel Pearl died. Around the time “The Slaughter” was recorded, Winterbottom was wrapping up production on his astonishing feature In This World, about the journey of two Afghan refugees from a camp in Pakistan to the streets of England. The principal cast members, Jamal Udin Torabi and Enayatullah, were nonprofessionals who essentially played themselves in a story that was based on their experiences and shot on location. At the same time, though, In This World was a fiction, unmistakably scripted and shaped, which had been staged for the digital-video camera. Three years later, Winterbottom returned to Pakistan and Central Asia, and to the same mixture of elements, to make The Road to Guantánamo. In part, the film was a talking-heads deposition in which three young British men of Pakistani background gave their account of falling into US custody in Camp Delta. The rest of the film was a re-enactment in which actors took the place of the witnesses.
You sensed in both these pictures that Winterbottom wanted to interpose himself as little as possible between you and the events. What Jamal Udin Torabi and the Tipton Three narrated, he put on screen with as much immediacy as possible in the evident belief that their stories were true. His task was merely–what? to transcribe? to translate? to realize? He was too smart to imply there was a simple definition of his role yet too candid in his sympathies to efface himself.
So it is with his third foray into this territory. A Mighty Heart opens with scenes of warfare (one of which, I think, was patched in from The Road to Guantánamo), followed quickly by images of Karachi, where Mariane and Daniel Pearl were stationed in early 2002. Later in the film, you’ll get atmospheric effects (Winterbottom likes the way birds circle over the rooftops at dawn and dusk); but for the moment the city seems to be nothing but a throbbing jumble of buses, cars and motorbikes. “How do you find one man amid all this?” Mariane asks on the soundtrack, in tones of sorrow and wonder. So the theme is announced. A Mighty Heart will be about a search and not a discovery; about the value of an individual life and the reality of multitudes.
So urgent is the search that the film is shot largely with a hand-held digital video camera, as if someone had chased after the protagonists and failed to capture them fully. Jump cuts signal the gaps and speed the action forward. You get the impression that you’re watching a peculiarly rapid and disorderly police procedural in which the overwhelming rush of detail is condensed by Mariane into a whiteboard diagram: a dense tangle of names and arrows, crisscrossing like yet another Karachi traffic jam, that show Daniel’s possible abductors and their interrelationships.
There’s something breathless (or even Breathless) in this main body of the film, and something like a Harrison Ford action thriller. But there’s also a strange inner calm, thanks to the performances of the two stars. The less celebrated of them, though central to the movie, is that of the Indian actor Irrfan Khan in the role of a Pakistani counterterrorism detective known as Captain. Khan has played this sort of tough-guy part many times before; but if you’ve seen him in Mira Nair’s recent The Namesake, you know he can also be thoughtful in demeanor, gaining the audience’s instant sympathy with his mournful round face. Khan brings some of that inwardness to Captain, even when he’s conducting a none-too-pretty interrogation. You feel for him, as much as for Mariane, when a turn in the investigation leaves him in a characteristic posture, speechless with dismay.
As for the big star, consort of producer Brad Pitt, for whom the project was set in motion: Jolie walks around under a wig that the Bride of Frankenstein might have worn to her senior prom, speaking in a French (Romanian? Turkish?) accent heard nowhere but in her immediate vicinity, and it doesn’t matter. Her Mariane is entirely convincing as a woman who refuses to panic or even to raise her voice more than necessary. (“Call me a car,” she says evenly to a colleague as the worst begins to unfold; and when asked, very reasonably, where she intends to go, she replies in the same measured tone, “I don’t know. Call me a car.”) This self-possession figures in A Mighty Heart as more than an admirable personality trait. It’s an act of conscience exercised by someone who can stand against organized viciousness without turning herself into a holy warrior. What makes this strength credible? Not any outbursts of showy acting (they almost don’t exist) and not the thin disguise, but a wonder of nature: Jolie’s air of being perfectly comfortable in her skin.
Maybe it sounds strange to make a quasi-documentary movie about the agonies inflicted by Islamist killers and then to have the meaning rest on a famous female body. But if you wanted to sum up the fears of all fundamentalists everywhere, what two words would do better than “Angelina Jolie”? This isn’t to say that Karachi’s masses are short on substantive grievances. (Winterbottom knows these people are hurt. It’s one of the points of A Mighty Heart, The Road to Guantánamo and In This World.) But the people among them who murdered Daniel Pearl achieved nothing substantial other than the production of their damned video.
Let their crime be answered by cops. The video should be answered by another film–a humane one–with an icon of womanly freedom at its heart.
Short Takes: If I review Michael Moore’s Sicko in this issue of The Nation, I will be jumping the release date. If I wait until the next issue, you will all have seen the film. What should I do?
I should tell you that Sicko contains only one of Moore’s practical jokes, and that it comes toward the end. (It’s the now-notorious Cuban expedition, subject of all the advance news reports, in which Moore sought socialist medical care for a group of ailing Americans. Missing from those preliminary reports was the point of the joke: The ostensible destination was Guantánamo, where you can get first-rate taxpayer-supported hospital care on American territory, provided you’re an accused terrorist.) Sicko also contains only one of Moore’s movie parodies and very few pieces of dredged-up White House memorabilia. (The notable exception: an excerpt from the Nixon tapes laying out the rationale for promoting health-maintenance organizations: “The less care they give ’em, the more money they make.”)
So what’s left of the usual Moore material, other than the old TV commercials that he sprinkles around, like sugar on cornflakes? The answer is people–ordinary working people, of the kind who rarely make it into a widely released movie, telling about their experiences with the medical system and collaborating with Moore in the filmmaking. I don’t think he’s ever before relied so heavily on so many people. They help him make his argument about the failures of American medicine (or, rather, the successes of American insurance-gouging). But to Moore’s great credit, the debating points never seem more important than the individuals who back them up.
What will you see in Sicko? Heartbroken, worried, angry, feisty, funny and valiant people. They’re irrefutable.
Since you won’t get the pleasures of a performance-art documentary from Sicko, let me recommend a weird little item from Prague, Czech Dream, which is opening at the IFC Center in New York. Called “a film reality show” by its perpetrators, Vít Klusák and Filip Remunda, Czech Dream shows step by step how in 2003 the filmmakers created a promotional campaign for a fictitious big-box store. They hired a graphic artist to design a logo. They retained a big advertising firm. (“Our ads work even if the product sucks, or doesn’t exist.”) A composer put together a pop song, complete with wailing inspirational soprano and children’s chorus. On May 31, 2003, opening day, these lures drew several thousand people to a meadow, where the “Czech Dream” market turned out to be a piece of painted canvas scenery 328 feet long. Some of this is hilarious, and some appalling. (Infirm old people in search of a bargain staggered through the meadow with their canes so Klusák and Remunda could make fun of consumerism.) Either way, the filmmakers stayed in the meadow and faced their public. That part wasn’t a dream.
Finally, a word about a documentary that’s straightforward reportage, and of the most useful kind: Unborn in the USA: Inside the War on Abortion. Starting in Colorado Springs at the Focus on the Family Institute, where Christian evangelical college students are trained as antiabortion missionaries, filmmakers Stephen Fell and Will Thompson interviewed activists around the country, recorded their rallies and demonstrations and documented their evolving tactics. “Why the Pro-Lifers Are Winning,” says the film’s promotional handout. The slogan may be only too accurate. For information: www.firstrunfeatures.com.