Within months of 9/11, Americans were again shaken by terrorist images showing the decapitation of Wall Street Journal writer Daniel Pearl. Filmed by the kidnapper Sheikh Omar and his co-conspirators, the accusatory Feb. 21, 2002 video was titled "The Slaughter of the Spy Journalist, the Jew Daniel Pearl."
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While news services tracked Pearl's kidnapping and its tragic outcome, nothing recapitulated the details of the month-long scramble to save the journalist's life more accurately than Pearl's widow and fellow journalist Mariane's memoir, A Mighty Heart: The Brave Life and Death of My Husband Danny Pearl.
Optioned by Brad Pitt in the role of producer and adapted for the screen by screenwriter John Orloff and director Michael Winterbottom, A Mighty Heart recently opened with superstar Angelina Jolie portraying Mariane.
Despite a mantel's worth of awards, including an Oscar for 1999's Girl Interrupted and three Golden Globes, the 32-year-old actress approached the project with apprehension. This wasn't just another acting gig. Being an intimate friend of Mariane Pearl, this was personal.
Despite an initial warning that media must refrain from asking any personal questions, the long-haired beauty seemed relaxed, cordial, and obliging within limits.
She spoke candidly about her apprehension: "Even the first day of shooting, I was very hesitant and very scared to do this movie. I didn't think I would be good enough to pull this off. I felt it was such an important thing to do. I believe very much in the message and what Daniel and Mariane represent as a couple. And what she taught me about overcoming fear and hate."
Ironically, their relationship started through the kids. Mariane had contacted Jolie to suggest a play date between her six-year-old son Adam, and the actress's son Maddox who was adopted from a local orphanage in Battambang, Cambodia.
"We became friends before we even thought about doing this film. We were both single moms, and she thought our kids could have fun together. Mariane worked on migrating and refugees and we'd talk a lot about women's issues. That's our most common bond. There are other great women in the world that we both admire, and we'd like to figure out one day how to get all these women together."
Professing love and tolerance, Mariane's philosophy has left an indelible impression on Jolie. She explained, "When something this tragic occurs, it is a very common reaction of people, and my own, to immediately just be so angry. And get so lost in self-pity, and be furious that something so horrific happened to somebody I cared about.
"It would be wonderful to somehow take a deep breath and see the bigger picture. How could I be part of the bigger solution to heal this situation in the future? Somehow she was able to do that."
Striving for realism, Winterbottom refused to play the sentimental card. The effectiveness of this approach can be measured by the impact of Jolie's soul-shattering scream. The scene, in which her character learns her husband has been beheaded, will forever be immortalized in cinematic archives.
Crediting "one of those odd actor things," when pushed further Jolie admitted, "There are certain things that make you emotional, and remind you of the saddest things in your life. I was just open, and tried not to think of any one thing. But I'm sure of the images of my own mom, who was sick at the time, or thoughts of anything happening to people that I love . . . my kids, did it.
"To sit in that space for a long time is a very emotionally draining thing to do, but then very cathartic. When you come out at the other end, you feel like you've mainly grown up a little more and connected to something."
Despite Jolie's heavy emotional investment in A Mighty Heart, the actress claims she's not preoccupied with the box office results. "Fortunately, I never [am]. I'll be in Prague hanging with the kids and I won't know." Playfully, she added, "I do live with the producer [Pitt] so I may hear something! But . . . no!
"The film was very low budget, so we don't have those pressures. And it wasn't made for the reason of making money. Money has never been our concern. So that's nice."
Jolie likes to describe herself as "a punk kid with tattoos." The tattoos remain, including four sets of geographical coordinates on her left shoulder that represent the birthplaces of her children – Maddox from Cambodia, Zahara from Ethiopia, Pax from Vietnam, plus biological daughter Shiloh, who was born in Africa.
Yet in the public eye, Jolie has become so much more. Named Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nation's Refugee Agency in 2001, Jolie has worked tirelessly, lobbying in Washington to take action in war-ravaged Sudan, pushing for the Unaccompanied Alien Child Protection Act, and even buying a home in New Orleans to support the Big Easy's economic revival.
In September 2006, Jolie announced the founding of the Jolie/Pitt Foundation, making initial donations to Global Action for Children and Doctors Without Borders of $1 million each. While filming A Mighty Heart in India last November, Jolie visited Afghan and Burmese refuges in New Delhi, and then spent Christmas Day distributing gifts to Colombian refugees in San Jose, Costa Rica.
Two months later found Jolie making a return visit to Chad to assess the deteriorating security situation of refugees from the Darfur region of Sudan. Upon returning to the States, the actress penned an Op-Ed piece for The Washington Post stressing the need for justice and increased involvement by the International Criminal Court to establish peace. These beliefs were further bolstered by million-dollar donations to relief organizations in Darfur and neighboring Chad.
Viewing the enormity of global problems, it's natural to question whether Jolie sometimes feels overwhelmed. "Yes, you do get to the point where you realize you can't help everyone, but you do the best you can with those you can help," she concluded.