A Private War stands as a timely reminder that journalists, unwilling to report propaganda masquerading as legitimate news, are a necessity.
Official Synopsis: A Private War
Marie Colvin (Rosamund Pike) is one of the most celebrated war correspondents of our time. Colvin is an utterly fearless and rebellious spirit (although I doubt she’d describe herself this way), driven to the front lines of conflicts to give voice to the voiceless, constantly testing the limits between bravery and bravado. After being hit by a grenade in Sri Lanka, she wears a distinctive eye patch and is still (seemingly) as comfortable sipping martinis with London’s elite as she is confronting dictators.
Colvin sacrifices relationships, and over time, her health as the trauma she’s witnessed takes its toll. Yet, her drive to show the true cost of war leads her — along with renowned war photographer Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan) — time and again to embark on the most dangerous assignments.
With a screenplay – influenced by 2012 Vanity Fair article, “Marie Colvin’s Private War” by Marie Brenner – written by Arash Amel, (it must be noted, Amel took liberties in omitting important aspects of Colvin’s personal life in his depiction) A Private War is the narrative feature film debut for director Matthew Heineman.
A Private War navigates eleven years in Colvin’s life as a London-based foreign correspondent for The Sunday Times beginning with a trek into media-restricted Sri Lanka that cost her an eye and on through to her most dangerous assignment in Homs, Syria.
Rosamund Pike as Colvin is a hard-charging, intelligent, empathetic, deeply troubled woman who throws herself full-out into pursuing truth regardless of the personal cost or difficulties associated with uncovering it. Although I was doubtful as to how good a fit Pike carrying off a slightly inelegant, no-nonsense yet personable persona would be, as she sinks into her portrayal her emotional commitment grabs you and doesn’t let go.
But this story is more than just a chronicle of Colvin’s “greatest hits” in print – like her final interview with Moammar Gadaffi in the midst of the Arab Spring uprising or her investigation that ultimately uncovers a mass grave in Fallujah. Sharing milestones and the chaotic parts of Colvin’s life/work as the central story in A Private War makes for a tense narrative.
A Private War anchors itself in Colvin’s ever-increasing trauma and the relationships she has with others. The film’s portrayal of her meeting and subsequent working relationship with Paul Conroy, who repeatedly followed her into danger thereafter, is in-and-of-itself a journey through memorable and history-changing moments in recent history.
Dornan and Pike have a subtle chemistry that builds naturally throughout the film and skillful imparts a sense of impending doom as Colvin’s focus on the story to the exclusion of all else, even her personal safety, begins to consume her.
Shooting on location in same-or-similar environs as the real-life events set the proper stage to understand her life’s work and expose the jarring dichotomy between it and the life she attempts to pick up back in London. But some of Heineman cinematic choices don’t match story direction. They come across as too stylized and a heavy-handed attempt to visually convey the trauma and pressure Colvin functioned through; like he didn’t trust audiences to adequately grasp the toll Colvin’s work and personal struggles took on her (perhaps, it’s his documentarian roots showing).
But A Private War does find its footing when portraying Colvin’s combative relationship with her Sunday Times Editor Sean Ryan (Tom Holland). This relationship was taxing on both parties and feels so in the viewing. Holland does a superb job conveying Ryan’s conflicted feelings about his need to keep her in the field despite witnessing obvious emotional damage to Colvin are readily apparent and impactful. Their every turn on screen works to connect the audience to what are otherwise far too many moments treated more as throw-away backstory rather than essential character development.
Many movies about journalism (think The Post, Spotlight, Frost/Nixon, All the President’s Men) treat the journalist(s) in the story as a gateway to examining a larger incident or societal event. It’s rare for the focus of a film to actually be the journalist; in fact, I can’t really think of one off hand (at least not any that didn’t make me roll my eyes…repeatedly.)
In a day and age where anti-journalism sentiment runs rampant, it’s a risky proposition to hop through the looking glass and examine a day-in-the-life (and motives) of a working journalist.
Here, it’s a worthy endeavor and not just because it’s an evocative glimpse (even presented highly stylized) into a Colvin’s world sure to spark discussions about PTSD and the unacknowledged price many pay in service to a cause (yes, a career can be a cause too).
A Private War is a carefully crafted tribute film that rightly focuses on Marie Colvin and her extraordinary knack for finding and telling the stories that expose the vagaries and human cost of the wars. It’s storyline works on just as many levels as it struggles mainly because it never tries to turn Colvin into a saint.