Director aims for truth about Mariane and Daniel Pearl

In the fall of 2001, Wall Street Journal bureau chief Daniel Pearl wrote an article describing the 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 scotched the story, according to Mariane Pearl’s memoir, “A Mighty Heart.” This anecdote isn’t in the powerhouse film co-produced by Brad Pitt and starring Angelina Jolie, but it was central to director Michael Winterbottom’s approach.

The original screenplay didn’t contain many references to Pearl’s Jewishness, Winterbottom confides. That was a misjudgment, in his view, that he set about correcting.

“It seemed important that Danny, as a Jewish person, was very aware of this kind of prejudice. He was very aware of this conspiracy theory,” the British filmmaker explained over espresso on the terrace of the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco. “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 assert it with certainty. However, it misses no opportunity to remind audiences that he was Jewish.

“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.”

The film is based on Mariane’s book, but Winterbottom also spoke with everyone who was involved in the search for Pearl between his kidnapping in Pakistan in January 2002 and his murder a month later.

“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,” Winterbottom says. “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.”

That’s not a standard narrative films typically adhere to. But it was a priority for Pitt and Jolie, who acquired the rights from Mariane and included her in the development process. Together they arrived at the choice of Winterbottom based on his recent jittery docudramas, “In This World,” about two Afghan refugees making the arduous journey to London, and “The Road to Guantanamo,” which recreated the nightmare of three British nationals caught up in a U.S. sweep in Pakistan after 9/11.

Looking partly like an artist with his black shirt and close-cropped graying hair, and partly like a tourist, with his new blue jeans and black sneakers, Winterbottom spoke so rapidly the tape recorder couldn’t catch every word. But his dedication to known facts and firsthand accounts came through clearly.

“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 Bernard-Henri Levy that is incredibly speculative, and the whole thing becomes slightly ponderous after a while because you can’t really trust any element in it.”

In the film, Jolie as Mariane expresses the hope that people on both sides avoid giving in to violence. But Winterbottom is reluctant to offer messages or morals.

“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.”

A Mighty Heart” opens Friday, June 22 in Bay Area theaters.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.