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Truth of Pearl

With rare exceptions, moviemakers liberally employ dramatic license when they adapt a true story for the screen. But remarkably, especially given the big names involved, that wasn't the case with A Mighty Heart, the powerhouse film based on Mariane Pearl's memoir of the infamous kidnapping and murder of her husband Daniel in Pakistan in early 2002.

"The idea was if we're going to make a film about an honest journalist, a journalist with integrity--two honest journalists, because Mariane is the same--we've got to try and work in the same spirit," says British director Michael Winterbottom in a recent interview on the terrace of a San Francisco hotel. "It's not about do you like this or don't you like this or do you agree with this. That shouldn't be as a journalist what you're doing."

Michael Winterbottom (R) directed A Mighty Heart, the story of Marianne Pearl's quest to find the truth about her husband Daniel's disappearance. Photo by Peter Mountain. © 2007 Paramount Vantage, A PARAMOUNT PICTURES company. All Rights Reserved.

Needless to say, that is not a standard to which Hollywood films typically adhere. But it was a priority for co-producer Brad Pitt and lead actress Angelina Jolie, who acquired the rights to the book from Mariane and included her in the development process. Together they arrived at the choice of Winterbottom to direct the picture.

Only in his mid-40s, the prolific filmmaker has made a slew of diverse films including Jude (adapted from the Thomas Hardy novel) and 24 Hour Party People, about the cutting-edge music scene in Manchester in the '80s. However, his most recent movies, In This World (which imagined two Afghan refugees making the arduous journey to London) and The Road to Guantanamo (which recreated the actual nightmare of three British nationals caught up in a U.S. sweep in Pakistan after 9/11) were jittery docudramas that captured the disorientation and cacophony of mysterious lands.

Winterbottom had the perfect style, plus he was obsessed with getting as close to the truth as possible. As it turned out, one of the side benefits of playing it straight was that A Mighty Heart could credibly draw a distinction between the serious work Daniel Pearl did as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and what passes for TV journalism.

Citing an example from Marianne's book that isn't in the movie, Winterbottom recalls a piece Danny filed describing the widespread belief in Pakistan that 9/11 was a CIA-Mossad-Jewish plot and that all the Jews got out of the World Trade Center. The Journal didn't run the story, but it reflected Pearl's insistence on reporting what people thought, even if it was ugly and American readers didn't want to hear it.

That incident provided a key to Danny's character, Winterbottom suggests, and was the impetus for adding a wealth of references to Danny's Jewishness that were not in the original screenplay.

"It seemed to me important that Danny, as a Jewish person, was very aware of this kind of prejudice, he was very aware of this conspiracy theory," Winterbottom explains. "His last words are about being Jewish and about his Jewish heritage. Mariane says in the book that Danny would never deny he's Jewish, even though he knows that people in Pakistan might be hostile to Jewish people."

The film raises the possibility that Pearl was taken and killed because he was Jewish, but doesn't confirm it. However, it misses no opportunity to remind audiences that he was Jewish through and through.

"It seems to me the [Jewish references] are all significant things, a part of the context for what happened to Danny, part of who Danny was," Winterbottom says. "But for me, none of those things are why he was kidnapped. I don't think I've heard anyone suggest in any convincing way that there was a targeting of Danny. Unfortunately, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Winterbottom is an unassuming-looking fellow who looks the part of an artist with his black shirt and close-cropped, graying hair, while his new blue jeans and black sneakers give him the appearance of a funky tourist. He knocked back a post-lunch espresso as the interview began, and spoke so quickly that the tape recorder couldn't catch every word. The same point came through over and over, though, namely the filmmakers' rigorous reliance on firsthand accounts.

"In a situation like this, once you start to speculate on things, you're in a very difficult area because you're really bringing your own prejudices to bear on things you don't know," he asserts. "There's a book (Who Killed Daniel Pearl?) by a guy called Bernard-Henri Levy which is incredibly speculative, and the whole thing becomes slightly ponderous after a while because you can't really trust any element in it."

In contrast, Winterbottom steadfastly practiced journalism. Ultimately, the witness who carried the most weight was Pearl's Buddhist wife Mariane.

"We went out and talked to a lot of other people and included a lot of that where we could, but in the end, finally, it's Mariane's point of view, it's about Mariane more than anything else and it's her experience of being there whilst Danny was being kidnapped," Winterbottom declares.

Throughout the conversation, Winterbottom bats away any talk of agendas, messages and morals. For one thing, the themes of A Mighty Heart are easily accessible. However, the real reason is that someone else originated this work, not the director.

"Every film, like every newspaper article, has a point of view," he concedes. "But at the same time I don't have a message. I don't come with a preconception [of] how I'm going to get to the point where I deliver, 'That's why you must do this.' Probably if you talked to Angelina or Mariane, they would have a much clearer idea of what the message was they wanted you to get. I think Mariane wrote a book with that idea in mind and Angelina probably wanted to be involved with the film with that idea in mind. But that's not me."

Finally, a bit reluctantly, Winterbottom cites Mariane's declaration in the film that the only course is to avoid giving in to violence and hatred.

"There's extremists on both sides who want to polarize the debate in such a way that you cannot possibly get on," he says. "'The only kind of dialogue is between your bomb and my rocket.' Mariane, having gone through the experience she went through, can resist that temptation and can say there are good people on both sides, you have to avoid hatred, you have to work in a positive spirit."

A Mighty Heart opens Friday, June 22.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a San Francisco film critic and journalist.

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