Film Review: A Private War

The parts of this episodic biopic of esteemed war correspondent Marie Colvin are so strong, they create a terrific whole.
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A Private War is an astute choice for documentarian Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land, City of Ghosts) to make his feature film debut. His intimate approach, which relies more on close-ups than larger set-pieces, works well for telling the important story of Sunday Times war correspondent Marie Colvin. The film is also an excellent showcase for Rosamund Pike’s spiky, striking performance as Colvin.

Based on Marie Brenner’s Vanity Fair article “Marie Colvin’s Private War,” this engrossing film opens with Colvin talking about why she tells the difficult stories she does. She explains that she needs to write about war in a way that makes readers care about it as much as she does. A Private War certainly gets viewers to care about Colvin. The screenplay, by Arash Amel, drops Marie (and viewers) into several war zones where she reports about various horrors. Heineman wisely does not shy away from showing some of the blood and the carnage, lest anyone forget the very real human stories that Colvin reported. Viewers see families’ lives being destroyed by war as it happens, which makes these scenes all the more potent.

The film opens in Homs, Syria, in 2012, but quickly flashes back to London, 2001, progressing episodically back to Homs, with scenes depicting key moments in Colvin’s life. It is a canny approach that efficiently chronicles the correspondent’s experiences on the ground in Sri Lanka, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria. The approach also introduces her relationships with her ex, David (Greg Wise), her Times editor Sean Ryan (Tom Hollander), her friend Rita (Nikki Amuka-Bird), her photographer Paul (Jamie Dornan) and her lover Tony (Stanley Tucci).

An early sequence in the film places Colvin in Sri Lanka, where she is looking to interview a Tamil Tiger. When she gets caught in an ambush, Colvin loses her left eye, but not her determination to report. Despite the toll her work takes on her body and mind, her bravery is continually inspiring. She is named “Foreign Correspondent of the Year.” She is also haunted by images of trauma. (The vivid cinematography by Robert Richardson deserves mention, if not an Oscar nomination).

Heineman effectively uses these visions—of a child’s lifeless body on a bed in particular—to get inside Colvin’s PTSD-infused mindset. He shrewdly uses Colvin’s voiceover observations about war to provide context for her intense experiences. A Private War immerses viewers in the various war zones without mercy. A sequence, set in 2003 Iraq, shows how Colvin has a nose for stories. She insists on going to find a mass grave despite concerns from others to redirect her efforts elsewhere. In the process, she has a stressful encounter at a checkpoint. This scene shows just how great Pike’s Oscar-worthy performance is. The actress uses Marie’s one good eye to express her emotion. She may be showing fear of real danger, but it comes across as her daring the soldier to dispute her story that she is a nurse en route to help people. When Colvin does witness the discovery of the mass grave, there is emotion, not phony sentiment, and the human cost and importance of telling these stories comes across because Heineman takes the time to allow viewers to absorb the pain and suffering on the victims’ families as well as the journalists.

A Private War depicts Colvin as an adrenaline junkie, and it is hard not to want her to go into the war zones because of the fascinating stories they yield. However, an episode set in a rehabilitation center—where Colvin stays to control her nightmares and PTSD—is equally revealing. Marie has a fantastic, self-aware monologue where she talks about her compulsions and addiction as well as her contradictions—having seen starving children, she worries about her weight but also tends to eat more. This, as well as advice she gives a fellow journalist, Kate (Faye Marsay), about finding the truth in a story, may scan as didactic, but Pike’s impressive performance never makes her sound likes she’s hectoring. Her impassioned speeches all feel heartfelt, not hollow.

Even a pair of very different scenes late in the film illustrate the reporter’s mettle. In one, Marie interviews Gaddafi (Raad Rawi) in Libya, asking him tough questions that he responds to by flattering her. It’s a curious and telling moment. In contrast, a heated exchange she has with her editor Sean prompts him to exclaim, “If you lose your conviction, what hope would the rest of us have?” This is both powerful and poignant.

A Private War may seem like a hagiography, but Colvin’s life is worthy of genuflection and it is justly honored by Heineman and Pike. Viewers care for Colvin because Pike is so convincing in the role. Her Marie is tough when it comes to shedding light on human-rights abuses, but she is also vulnerable—a nice running joke has her frustrated by computer troubles. The film addresses her alcoholism, her hopes and fears, but it is best when it has her reporting. She is completely possessed by her work, and Pike swaggers through the film headstrong, never hitting a false note.

The film’s closing credits, which unspool under Annie Lennox’s haunting original song “Requiem for a Private War,” include clips from Colvin’s Times stories, several of which form the basis of the film. It is a respectful tribute from a film that does its subject tremendous justice.