Michael Winterbottom’s take on the life and death of Daniel Pearl is a rich study of parallels. With the outcome already in the public domain, the focus shifts to the doomed couple’s back-story and the complicated trail of—mainly—facts from the kidnapping on January 23, 2002 to the horrific video that shattered any remaining hope both for the Wall Street Journal reporter and the prospect that political executions will ever be eradicated—there is more chance of “solving” climate change than convincing all of mankind to make love not war.
In the opulent Karachi house rented by Muslim/Indian Asra Nomani and whose “tenants” include Mariane (Angelina Jolie) and Daniel Pearl, an executive chef prepares succulent meals washed down with vintage wines (the vinegar joke brings one of the few chuckles) even as the gleaming slab-floors are hand-washed by a woman who should be retired with at least the basic necessities.
Pearl is kidnapped—allegedly—by virtue of being an inquisitive American whose country stands accused of housing Taliban/al-Qaeda “detainees” in squalid conditions in Guantanamo Bay—“Improve conditions for those prisoners and we’ll improve our hostage’s conditions and, perhaps, spare his life” is the general thrust of the captors’ demands.
Depending on who you believe, Pearl is either an agent for Mossad or the CIA; equally unclear is whether his abductors are Muslim extremists or the Indian version of the CIA. (Ironic here is that both Pearls seek journalistic truth—colleagues of their profession report every slant on the story; some even announce Daniel’s death prematurely on Super Bowl Sunday.)
The grim identification scene in the morgue—where it’s revealed that the corpse is not Pearl but an Iranian student with braces—causes much relief to the living but also stokes an uneasy subtext that demonstrates no compassion for the young man on the slab from those obsessed with finding the captive journalist, capturing his abductors and meting out swift justice.
Very, very young life is used to underscore the notion of innocence and plight of the next generation. At first, the engaging toddler of Asra’s housekeeper subtly reminds viewers of how hatred has to be learned, but his cherubic visage slips into too many frames, lessening the impact considerably. In Mariane’s womb, Adam grows with every nervous day (she was well into her pregnancy when Daniel disappeared), unaware that the man present at conception will never hear “Daddy” for the first time.
Finally, Mariane’s twin wails (and quite literally crying for two in the first) with the tempered news of her husband’s beheading (the not-shown grisly video—only the reaction of Daniel’s outraged allies can be seen—is a Hitchcock-like triumph, letting the screening room of the viewer’s imagination add the horrific gore) and the last push to bring her fatherless son into the world are imbued with the same frenzied pitch that magnificently draws the link between the end and beginning of life. Jolie is at her finest in these gut-wrenching moments but it’s the staging that adds more depth: hearing the awful news, she flees to the privacy of her bedroom and moans on her knees—not unlike the Muslims at prayer; in childbirth she’s on her back with an upward gaze that provides a modicum of hope for humanity once her newborn chimes in with his innocent lungs. JWR