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Daniel Pearl Documentary Fails to Live Up to Its Subject's Standards

By Michael Fox

By all accounts, Daniel Pearl was a first-rate journalist and a genuine mensch. Too bad someone of the same skill and stature wasn't asked to produce the HBO documentary about his life and death.

It's not that The Journalist and the Jihadi: The Murder of Daniel Pearl presents an unflattering picture of the Jewish reporter who was kidnapped and killed in Pakistan in early 2002. To the contrary, the film repeatedly cites his well-rounded upbringing, golden-boy potential and commitment to explaining the Arab world to Wall Street Journal readers in the West.

However, the tacky blend of true-crime story, heart-tugging hagiography and political thriller proffered here trivializes not only Pearl's death, but the enormous global tensions that led to it. This is a textbook example of pseudo-journalism that, presumably, Pearl himself would have found simplistic and compromised.

As a print journalist, of course, he might have had already had a low regard for television's handling of the news.

The most surprising aspect of the documentary, and arguably the most risky, is the way it plays up Pearl's Judaism from the outset. His father, who succeeded in computer science in Southern California, was Israeli. There's a clip of Pearl stomping the glass at his wedding to Marianne, a non-Jew born in Paris to Cuban and Dutch parents, and a clip of guests dancing the hora.

It soon becomes clear that The Journalist and the Jihadi highlights these rather unimportant bits primarily to heighten the comparison with "jihadi" Omar Sheikh, a Londoner who was radicalized by the deaths of Muslims during the Bosnian war. (It would be more relevant if Pearl was an observant Jew as an adult, but that seems not to have been the case.)

The weak thesis of the film is that Pearl and Sheik had so much in common that their intersection was not just tragic, but ironic. Both were smart, highly educated and had the potential for exceptional careers.

The events of 9/11, followed by the U.S. assault on Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, apparently made Sheikh even more militant. Pearl, meanwhile, now the Journal 's bureau chief in India, went with Marianne to Pakistan to ferret out the financial connections between the 9/11 hijackers and radical Islamic groups.

Sheikh got wind of Pearl and masterminded the kidnapping, either to cut off his line of investigation or to embarrass President Musharraf by demonstrating the Pakistani government's inability to control the radical militants. As part of a scheme to divide the operation, and preserve secrecy, Sheikh then handed Pearl off to a different group of men.

The documentary suggests that Sheikh didn't know that Pearl was Jewish until he read the newspaper stories that appeared in the days after the reporter's disappearance. If true, it eliminates Pearl's Jewishness as the reason for his kidnapping.

But not his murder. The Journalist and the Jihadi alleges that once Pearl's identity became known, a different faction "bought" him, and executed him in an exceptionally brutal way.

Since much of this is either conjecture or was learned in the absence of cameras, narrator Christiane Amanpour is forced to supply a raft of crucial facts and assertions. To fill in the visuals that don't exist--Pearl's meeting with Sheikh at a restaurant, or the sending of an email, or cars driving by at night while Marianne waits anxiously for Daniel's return--filmmakers Ahmed A. Jamal and Ramesh Sharma stage recreations.

The truth may be out there, but this documentary can't quite put its finger on it. The only thing we know for sure is that Daniel Pearl was a journalist of exceptional ambition, initiative and tenacity. It was precisely those qualities that led to his death.

The Journalist and the Jihadi: The Murder of Daniel Pearl premiered Tuesday, Oct. 10 on HBO, coinciding with what would have been his 43rd birthday. But it will then be replayed frequently. Check your HBO schedule for specifics.

Yiddish term for an honorable, decent person, usually means "a person of integrity and honor," someone of good character and a deep sense of what is right. Hebrew, derived from the Greek word for "dance," a variety of dances done in a circle, popular in Israel (and the Balkans).
Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a San Francisco film critic and journalist.

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