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A Mighty Shame

For me, "A Mighty Heart" and all the hype surrounding it have only underscored how cheap and manufactured our quest for heroism has become. Paramount even launched an "ordinary hero" contest to promote the movie. "Nominate the most inspiring ordinary hero," its Web site shouts. "Win a trip to the Bahamas!"

Lost in the PR machine and the heroism hoopla is Danny, whose death is at the center of the story. After all, as one person involved in the production candidly told me: Danny can't do interviews. So in the Associated Press review, he amounts to nothing more than a parenthetical phrase.

But Danny was not parenthetical. He deserves to be remembered fully. He was charming and charismatic. He was an outstanding investigative reporter with an irreverent streak. The year before he died, I'd taken a leave from the Journal to work on a book, and he faxed me an article from an Indian magazine that he thought would help with my research. "From your assistant, Danny," he scrawled across the cover sheet, in his self-deprecating style.

He observed the media machine with a contrarian, skeptical eye. In November 2001, after the war in Afghanistan had begun, he wrote to me: "I'm getting to Pakistan just in time for the lull between 'well, more bombings, more deaths -- who cares now?' and 'shit, it's December, we have to round out our prize packages' " with big articles for awards such as the Pulitzers. "Okay, no more cynicism from here," he signed off. "I'm going to be a father and must maintain an idyllic view of the world."

Danny had me teach him how to say "Do I look like a fool?" in Urdu so he could tell off Mumbai taxi drivers who tried to overcharge him. Once, shortly after arriving in Peshawar on an assignment, he wrote me: "I'm at the Pearl Continental, wasn't able to get a free room despite my argument that I was the owner."

Don't look for that personality in the movie. You won't find it.

I know I'm guilty of assisting in Hollywood's mythmaking. In the fall of 2003, I went with Mariane to the Los Angeles home of Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, where we ate bagels and drank coffee by the pool while listening to their pitch for buying the movie rights to her book. When Mariane decided to sell, Warner Bros. Pictures sought my "life rights," too. I agreed to sell them, even though a friend told me that making a movie about Danny's death seemed exploitative.

A year passed. Pitt and Aniston got a divorce. Pitt and Jolie got together. The movie rights passed to Paramount Vantage. Paramount hired British director Michael Winterbottom. And a script emerged.

When I read it last summer, I felt as though I'd been punched in the gut. I sat across from British actress Archie Panjabi, who had been dispatched to my home in Morgantown to learn to play me. I lamented that none of the characters were fully developed, least of all Danny.

When I watched the movie last month, I was relieved that I wasn't a servant girl, as I felt an early script had it. So I wrote to a producer, "Thumbs up okay on my end." But I wasn't being true to myself. I was reacting to the power and seduction of Hollywood.

A few days later, when I saw the photos of stars in evening gowns and tuxedos floating down the red carpet for the Cannes premiere of "A Mighty Heart," Danny's not-quite-5-year-old son among them, I had that sinking feeling again. Other friends of Danny's said they did, too. It was so not Danny.

Worst of all, the pomp came at the same time as a chilling reminder of his death. On the night of the Cannes premiere, the Daily Times, a Pakistani newspaper, ran a photo of an emaciated man said to have been the owner of the plot of land where Danny had been held and where his remains had been buried. The accompanying story alleged that the man had been held in the U.S. naval prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, then released to Pakistani intelligence authorities, who had recently dumped him at his family's home. The headline: "Most wanted man in Daniel Pearl case: Saud Memon dies."

On the eve of the movie's New York premiere earlier this month, I was in Phoenix at the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference. I was there to announce the establishment of the Pearl Project, a joint faculty-student investigative reporting project at Georgetown University that will aim to find out who really killed Danny and why. It's my own way of honoring him. His story isn't over for me. I set up the project because -- despite a confession from Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of 9/11 and of Richard Reid's failed shoe-bombing, that he killed Danny -- I believe we still don't know the real truth behind what happened to him.

After the conference, I had to decide whether to go to New York for the premiere or head back home. I went home. In my home office, I stood in front of a copy of the chart I had started in Karachi to make sense of everything that happened after that January day in 2002. At the center is a single name: Danny.

Asra Q. Nomani teaches journalism in Georgetown University's School of Continuing Studies.

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