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'A Mighty Heart' Tells True Story of Murdered US Journalist Daniel Pearl


The 2002 kidnapping and murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan is dramatized from the perspective of his widow, French-born journalist Mariane Pearl, in a powerful new film by English director Michael Winterbottom. It stars Oscar-winner Angelina Jolie. Alan Silverman has a look at A Mighty Heart.

In Karachi on January 23, 2002 Daniel Pearl kissed Mariane goodbye for the last time. The Wall Street Journal investigative reporter was off to interview a source for a story he was researching on alleged local links to terrorist groups.

Mariane Pearl, six months pregnant, quickly knew something was wrong ...and her fears were confirmed when a little-known group sent a message accusing Daniel of being a spy and demanding the United States release all Pakistani terror detainees.

She stood up to posturing by some political officials and embraced the support of dedicated investigators who were as determined as she was to find her husband. But nine days later, a graphic videotape showed his beheading at the hands of extremists linked to al-Qaeda. Mariane Pearl detailed her ordeal in a 2003 memoir which veteran documentary maker Michael Winterbottom says was his guide to putting the story on film.

"I thought the book was very powerful so the idea was just to go back to the book and keep the film, in a way, as literal an adaptation as we coul," Winterbottom says. "Obviously there are things you can do in a book which you can't do in a film, but in the book Mariane tells the story kind of simply from the day of Danny's kidnap to when she leaves Pakistan knowing that he is dead. We just took that shape and lifted from the book, as much as possible, Mariane's version of the story."

"Even to the first day of shooting I was very hesitant and scared to do this movie," adds Angelina Jolie. "I didn't feel I'd be good enough to pull this off and I felt it was such an important thing to do; but I believed very much in the message and what she taught me about overcoming fear and hate, becoming a more tolerant person."

Jolie says meeting Mariane Pearl inspired her to take on the role, even though she admits it frightened her.

"I don't know if I would have had the strength to do what she did," she says, "and when I first saw her interviews and the way she responded to what happened to her husband ...and she was able to go on days later and say 'ten other people died this month and they were all Pakistani and they are suffering as much as we are...' I could not, when I first heard that, understand how she was able to come to that so quickly; and having gotten to know her and understand where that is coming from and the importance of having dialog and trying to go that higher ground to find solutions - I have learned that and it is a big lesson."

For security reasons, the filmmakers opted to shoot most of Jolie's scenes in Northern India; but Dan Futterman, who co-stars as Daniel Pearl, went with director Winterbottom to Karachi to re-enact scenes from the 2002 drama in the actual locations.

"To be there and get a sense of Urdu being spoken on the street, the sort of incredible chaos - both in good and bad ways of that city ...it is an amazing place, teeming with 14 million people in greater Karachi, and you get the sense of sort of bursting at the seams," he says. "I don't think you could get that anywhere else. It was incredibly important to the texture and the feel of the movie to be shooting actually where things happened."

The investigator who became Mariane's greatest ally in the race against time to rescue Daniel - a Pakistani military intelligence officer known in the film as 'Captain' - is played by Indian star Irfan Khan, among several leading South Asian actors in A Mighty Heart.

"This story needed to be told and shared with as many people as possible because of the kind of message the film has," says Khan. "I won't call it a message ...but it is the kind of experience that should be shared with everybody."

Director Winterbottom hopes that audiences come away from the experience, not with anger or hate over the past, but with a sense of hope for the future.

"When I finished reading the book I felt that Mariane had overcome the worst experience you could imagine," he says. "To have your husband kidnapped and killed, yet she somehow had not given in to the kind of hatred you'd imagine she would have. If the film has a similar sense ...if people felt hatred was the wrong response and not the way forward, then obviously that would be a great thing."

In his memory and with his parents, Mariane Pearl helped establish the Daniel Pearl Foundation which has as its mission statement: "to promote cross-cultural understanding through journalism, music and innovative communications."

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