A Mighty Shame
It's the Story of Our Search for Danny Pearl. But in This Movie, He's Nowhere to Be Found.

By Asra Q. Nomani
Sunday, June 24, 2007

O n Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2002, I stood at the gate of my rented house in Karachi, watching my friend Danny Pearl juggle a notebook, cellphone and earpiece as he bounded over to a taxicab idling in the street. He was off to try to find the alleged al-Qaeda handler of "shoe bomber" Richard Reid in Pakistan. "Good luck, dude," I called, waving cheerfully as he strode off, a lopsided grin on his face. His pregnant wife, Mariane, stood smiling and waving beside me as the taxi pulled away. A gaggle of parrots swooped through the trees above, squawking in the late afternoon sun.

That was the last image I had of Danny until late last month, when a PR executive for Paramount Vantage pulled up to my house in Morgantown, W.Va., in a black Lincoln Town Car. She was carrying a DVD of "A Mighty Heart," the just-released movie, based on the book by Mariane Pearl, about the staggering events that unfolded after that innocuous moment in Pakistan: Danny's kidnapping and eventual beheading.

With my parents and a friend beside me, I pressed "play" on my DVD player and settled in to watch. Slowly, as the scenes ticked by, my heart sank. I could live with having been reduced from a colleague of Danny's to a "charming assistant" to Mariane, as one review put it, and even with having been cut out of the scene in front of my house in Pakistan. That's the creative license Hollywood takes. What I couldn't accept was that Danny himself had been cut from his own story.

The character I saw on the screen was flat -- nerdy, bland and boring. He's not at all like Danny, who wrote "ditties" about Osama bin Laden while he was investigating Pakistan's nuclear secrets and jihadist groups as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. On screen, he's warned three times to meet with Sheik Mubarik Ali Gilani -- the man with whom he thought he had an interview -- only in public. But off he goes, ignoring the warnings. The message: Reckless journalist.

That was nothing like the Danny I knew. As the credits rolled, I murmured to my mother, "Danny had a cameo in his own murder."

For me, watching the movie was like having people enter my home, rearrange the furniture and reprogram my memory. I'd known it was a gamble when I agreed to help with a Hollywood version of Danny's kidnapping, but I'd done it because I thought the movie had the potential to be meaningful. I'd hoped it could honor the man I'd worked alongside for nine years at the Journal by explaining why he was so passionate about his work as a reporter. I'd hoped that it would tell the story of the unique team of law enforcement agents, government officials and journalists -- of varying religions, nationalities and cultures -- that had searched for him. And I hoped it could spark a search for the truth behind Danny's death.

But the moviemakers and their PR machine seemed intent on two very different and much shallower goals: creating a mega-star vehicle for Angelina Jolie, who plays Mariane, and promoting the glib and cliched idea that both Danny and Mariane were "ordinary heroes."

I think Danny would have rolled his eyes at that.

In the prologue to her book, Mariane wrote to her son: "I write this book for you, Adam, so you know that your father was not a hero but an ordinary man." In a movie voiceover, that dedication becomes: "This film is for our son so he knows that his father was an ordinary man. An ordinary hero."

But there weren't any real heroes in the story of Danny's tragedy. Danny would have said he was just doing his job. When he went off that day in Karachi, he didn't give any impression that he thought what he was doing was especially dangerous. He just had a story he wanted to pursue and an interview he thought would help him. After he vanished, I don't think any of us, not even Mariane, did anything particularly courageous, either. We each had a duty to try to find him -- either as professionals or because of the bonds of friendship or family.

I know that movies need a dramatic arc and that there has to be room for artistic license in the telling of a true story, because reality is often so chaotic. I know that it's natural to search for a compelling narrative structure to make sense of tragedy and pointlessness. And I do believe that Danny's last moments, as he declared his Jewishness for his kidnappers' video camera, showed his strength of character.

But recasting a story just so we can tell ourselves that we've found a hero is too easy. It's the quickest way to convince ourselves that what happened wasn't such a bad thing, that it had redeeming value, that we can close the book on it and move on with our lives. We do it too often -- with television shows about ordinary people with extraordinary powers, with magazine features that extol the "heroes among us" and with our impulse to elevate every story -- think Jessica Lynch, ambushed and wounded in Iraq -- to one of heroism.

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.

pearlproject@georgetown.edu

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

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