Although playing more like an extended “20/20” segment than a cinematic docu, “The Journalist and the Jihadi — The Murder of Daniel Pearl” lends itself effortlessly to a cross-cultural exploration of terrorism and the sort of informed idealism the Wall Street Journal reporter himself propounded. Stitching together a fascinating investigation of both the kidnapper and his victim, helmers Ahmed A. Jamal and Ramesh J. Sharma (respectively Pakistani and Indian) explore the events while maintaining an almost hagiographic appreciation of Pearl’s life and values. Slotted for an October playdate on HBO, docu should prove popular on cable and Eurotube.
In an attempt to smash pre-conceived notions of the extremists, parallels are immediately drawn between the relatively privileged backgrounds of both Pearl and his Brit-born kidnapper Omar Sheikh. Like many young Muslim men drawn to fundamentalism, Sheikh was galvanized by the war in Bosnia, abandoning his studies and heading for the terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Schoolmates and teachers recall a bright but tough kid, though the absence of family interviews makes it difficult to get a window on his personality.
Pearl’s parents and sisters participated wholeheartedly with the docu creators. The portrait that emerges is of an intelligent, compassionate, life-embracing man long fascinated with Muslim culture, who saw his job as reporter as a way of helping to bridge the gap between Islam and the West. Never one to accept official explanations for questionable actions, Pearl was especially interested in uncovering the financial networks that supported the post-9/11 terrorists.
By the time the Journal appointed Pearl as chief of the Southeast Asia Bureau, Sheikh was already embroiled in a number of kidnapping attempts, and in 1999 his release from jail was one of the bargaining chips used by hijackers in India. With the help of author Bernard-Henri Levy and others, helmers carefully trace Sheikh’s connection to the Pakistani secret service (ISI), a relationship of special interest to Pearl, who was investigating the links between terrorist funding and the upper echelons of Pakistani government.
It was while tracing some leads that Pearl was lured into a fake meeting by Sheikh and his conspirators, who kidnapped him and about a week later passed him on to Arab terrorists, who were responsible for his beheading. Meanwhile, five weeks went by before family, including his pregnant wife Marianne, and colleagues — not to mention the FBI — discovered that Pearl was no longer alive.
Jamal and Sharma use an impressive number of sources and material, juggling talking heads so well that the occasional out-of-focus recreations feel unnecessary. Though the shadowy Sheikh remains something of a cipher, Pearl is sympathetically brought alive, and real tension builds as the details of the abduction are revealed. Helmers wisely refused to show the footage of Pearl’s beheading.
Narration by Christiane Amanpour might have seemed like a good idea at inception, but her unmistakable style feels too news-broadcast for the docu’s purposes, resulting in more of an objective blow-by-blow account rather than acting as a welcome guide.
Look of HD on the bigscreen is occasionally less than sharp, though it shouldn’t be an issue for TV airing.