On Wednesday night one of us attended the premiere of the most intriguing product of the Hollywood "stop paying attention to our traffic violations and start paying attention to us heroically shedding light on international hotspots" wave that was the movie A Mighty Heart. It was not a very good movie, though Angelina Jolie acted the shit out of it and Michael Winterbottom's direction so autistically true to life that we could practically smell the streets of Karachi. (Scent: not so fresh!) No, what seemed to be wrong was the story. It was teeming with requisite ingredients — love, terrorism, horror, goodness, nuance, spies, counterspies, nebbishy journalists, conspiracy theorizing brown people — so teeming you would forgive it if the teemingness was the problem. But it was hollow and small and annoyingly unambitious, and you had trouble caring about Mariane Pearl, who in the final scene of the movie gives birth to her and Daniel Pearl's son alone. (She gives birth alone — why? Because she is a semi-insufferable woman who romanticizes and dramatizes her every action and giving birth alone is supposed to symbolize some great triumph of the human spirit? Or because no one really likes her all that much? Or because putting an Eason Jordan character in the movie would be kinda distracting?) After the jump, Moe weighs in more on the movie and the book that inspired it.
I left the movie depressed. Depressed because I wanted to like Mariane Pearl because she had gone through so much and stands for so much and Angelina Jolie, of whom some of us here are a fan, is such a fan, but I had a feeling that the real life widow was the only thing standing between the world's most famous couple making a serious important film that could do for a mass audience what Control Room did for, you know, the NPR-listening choir. A Mighty Heart, in other words, had to be a bad book.
So I looked it up on the internet. Everybody loved it! She even had a co-author! Maybe I was stupid! (Duh!) Did I just not want to blame Angie?
So I bought it. I started reading it; I did not finish; my suspicions proved correct.
Mariane clearly, clearly, clearly loved loved loved Danny. To read the beginning part where she talks about how proud she is of him and how warm and perfect and wonderful he is is like reading some very precocious teenage girl's diary about how she imagines life with the man of her dreams is going to turn out. And who knows, teenage girls could love this movie. It could be the next The Notebook. But to the adults in the audience it seemed false, and immature, and dishonest. (I cannot speak for Kimora Lee Simmons.)
Like Daniel Pearl I worked for a distant bureau of the WSJ when 9/11 happened. (Unlike Daniel Pearl, I was not so much a great reporter.) Also, my distant bureau was Los Angeles. (Unlike Daniel Pearl, I mainly wrote about shoes.) My weeks after the towers fell were spent mostly in an eastern shitty suburb of San Diego called Lemon Grove, where two of the 9/11 hijackers had lived and worked and attended the odd strip club. The story was so impossibly big and important and terrifying-to-get-beaten on that they sent two of us down at first, me and an editor about twelve years my senior. I was reminded of this because in the first chapter, Mariane talks about how she went on almost all of her interviews with Danny, and interviewing subjects with a companion is really cool, especially, when they are the sort of people you don't actually relate to much, like this methhead we met whose neighbor followed a very fringe anti-modernity sect of Islam that had inspired him, it was revealed in family court, to skin his daughter's pet rabbit as punishment for playing with "idols" (Barbies).
Point being: people out there = weird. Situation = stressful. This editor = the only sane person with whom I communicated for weeks after this cataclysmic event.
"So did you ever think about, like, just giving your editor a blowjob in the car? Just to like ease the tension?"
That was the first question my friend Evan had when I returned. Evan used to work in porn, which might be why he's such a great reporter, because people don't get as creeped out when he asks shit like that. Some even answer honestly. I did not.
But yeah, of course I had. We were all in this weird place with all these strange poor people (Muslims in America: not so affluent, a lot!) and all their weird skepticism and racist neighbors and meth fiend advocates and everything was really really really tense and all the editors back in New York were falling to pieces because their offices had been totally destroyed in the attack, and yes, for being with me through all of that I wanted to hump my editor, very much yes. He was the only remotely doable person I was going to happen upon.
It was not so easy to reconcile that with the righteous humanism with which I wanted to view the world, especially in the wake of 9/11, when suddenly my own country had experienced a tragedy on the scale of other countries and I wanted to believe that the world would share in our grief, that we were all grieving together, that out of tragedy ought to come some better understanding between us and our neighbors.
Also: The world was collapsing. Why all the thinking about fucking? Because I was human and horny and all this chatting up of poor crazy religious people was starting to feel really fake? Because I was human and I DON'T love everyone else in the universe equally, especially the ones who seem so unlike us? Or because in the movie version, there would be romance; in the movie version, there would be a Great Affair?
To read A Mighty Heart is to think Mariane Pearl is kinda in the latter camp without ever really have considered the question. In fact, to read A Mighty Heart is to think Mariane was actually writing the movie before her husband was even beheaded. I'm not saying she didn't love him sufficiently, but there's a scene in the movie in which someone wonders why she's not more weepy about things and it's because she can't help it, she's thinking ahead, about what it will mean, what sort of statement she can make out if it, how she can narrativize it. That's a common thing in a journalist, something she's so aware of she cops to it on the very first page:
It is the curse of all journalists, I suppose, to be writing a story even as you are living it.
But thinking like this won't ever let you live anything, and in turn you'll never really be able to live something vicariously through somebody else, and in turn you'll never really be able to convey a
story that makes anyone ever feel anything other than mildly. That's why Mariane's globetrotting odyssey series in Glamour magazine is so disappointing, because she is so bent on conveying the goodness and the horror that she never reminds readers what the public really needs to know if they are going to be bothered to care, that they are, in some ways, "Just Like Us." Because even poor people in war-ravaged countries eat, and fart, and in not-so-appropriate moments think about giving head. Knowing this is central to imagining every aspect of another's existence that goes into writing a good book or playing a character well and it requires putting down the notebook and smelling your own farts on occasion. They stink = the point. But Mariane seems too swept up in the glamour (hah!) of the foreign correspondent lifestyle to stop and really ponder all this, and so you're left with a story about a woman who doesn't seem like she really knows how to love. (Which is weird for a movie with "heart" in the title.)
That said, if anyone loves Mariane, Angelina Jolie seems to, because she manages to portray her in a way that is both accurate and gentle. We've all read about how they're friends. It makes me glad for Brad and the family that she spent all that time being crazy and fucked up. We bet she's a good mom. We hope she rubs off on Mariane.