A Gritty Narrative on the Life of Legendary War Correspondent, Marie Colvin.
DIRECTED BY MATTHEW HEINEMAN/2018
Writer Marie Brenner wrote the article that inspired Eric Roth and Michael Mann to write 1999’s The Insider, a story Mann went on to direct about a whistle blower who exposed “Big Tobacco” on a 60 Minutes segment in the 1990’s. Her follow up, some 19 years later, is now a reversal of that as she is now the screenwriter for a film called A Private War, which is based on a Vanity Fair article entitled, “Marie Colvin’s Private War” by Arash Amel, which covers one of the most celebrated war correspondents of our modern day, Marie Colvin.
Directed by Matthew Heineman who has, until this film, primarily been a documentarian with Award-nominated films such as Cartel Land, City of Ghosts, and Escape Fire. Heineman’s previous documentary experience allows A Private War to truly capture the gritty feel of his previous work, albeit in the format of a proper narrative film. A Private War allows the audience to fully understand the effects that covering real-life events, such as war, truly has on the psyche of those who go into these areas to cover it.
If Spotlight and The Post were films that demonstrated the sanctimonious side of the press who are truly a needed entity to hold powerful institutions like the church and government to a high standard, then A Private War is all of that, and a lot more. Here, you don’t just get the thrill of uncovering a big story being covered up by the powerful like in the two previously mentioned films. Instead, you see the exacting price that is paid by reporters who put their very lives on the line in order to bring the truth of some of the worst of the world’s atrocities to light.
Marie Colvin (Rosamund Pike) was an American reporter who worked for the British newspaper, The Sunday Times. She covered their international affairs stories, and often felt drawn to the war torn regions around the globe. While interviewing a rebel leader in Sri Lanka and exposing a humanitarian disaster there, she, and her party, were attacked by the Sri Lankan Army who shot a RPG towards her in April of 2001. The blast cost her the use of her left eye, but she continued to report and travel to war zones for years afterward, wearing a black eye-patch.
While in Iraq at the start of the 2003 invasion, we see how she meets a photo journalist named Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan) and together they travel to Ramallah, exposing a mass grave that proved the cruelty of Saddam Hussein’s forces against his own people. It would be a professional relationship that would last her the rest of her life, as Conroy is with her on her fateful day in February of 2012.
Colvin’s editor and friend, Sean Ryan (Tom Hollander), often is seen pleading with her to get out of such areas, but isn’t upset to keep collecting awards for her reporting in such places, on behalf of The Sunday Times, either. It is this relationship that demonstrates the dual nature of the press which serves such a great purpose, but often functions with the same political and self-serving structures that corrupt other professional industries. For the war correspondent, however, there really must be a deeper calling from within in order to keep putting oneself in harms way to serve the greater good of being a voice for those who are powerless against such oppression. The political nature of the media, journalist awards and the like, might be a necessary evil that allows papers, magazines, and television journalism to be financed in order to function, but as we see with Colvin, those things are a means to an end, to accomplish the pure and selfless function of true journalism.
The real strength of this film is the performance by Pike, as A Private War goes to great lengths to show the physical and emotional toll these experiences have on Colvin, especially the reoccurring nightmares of the RPG attack she survived, along with every war victim she has seen. The reminder that there are real people, putting their lives on the line to bring to our attention to the horrific suffering that people around the world are enduring, is a sobering thing. We are also shown how many times reporters like Colvin suffer PTSD in similar ways as returning soldiers. Though for Colvin, who eventually did seek professional treatment to deal with some of this, much of her typical way of dealing with the trauma was to find solace in a bottle of alcohol and relationships that always seemed to fizzle out under the stress of her constant globe-travelling.
Matthew Heineman captures it all like a true documentarian, knowing which angles of the camera will help tell this story the best, especially the scenes from the front lines of war torn nations. It is a fantastic debut for him directing a scripted narrative. He starts the film, and flashes back in time before building back towards the climatic moment he started at, as Marie Colvin and Paul Conroy make their way into Homs, Syria. This would be where she broadcasted live to Anderson Cooper on CNN relaying how she had witnessed and had evidence that the Syrian government was shelling its own people, mostly defenseless women and children. This would be the final broadcast for Marie Colvin, in what she had described as the worst place she had ever seen.
A Private War will be worth consideration for awards season, especially as it pertains to Pike who delivers her strongest performance to date. Heineman should also see his directorial opportunities increase, and the gritty style he demonstrates here makes him worth a look to possibly be a candidate to be the director for the third film in the Sicario series when it is eventually green-lighted. Pacing is one issue that needed to be tightened up for this film, as it is a bit long, but the compelling performances and storyline make up for some of the film’s deficiencies.
A Private War opens to many markets this weekend and is a film that deserves to be seen. It is a reminder of, and a tribute to, all of the brave women and men who put themselves on the front lines of conflicts around the globe to bring the stories of people who are suffering to light so that evil, brutality, and totalitarianism are not allowed to run roughshod without being challenged. The toll this has on these individuals who experience so much so that we don’t have to, as Marie tells her editor in the film, is one not often thought about by the news consuming public. By remembering the human element behind the journalists who report to us, maybe it will remind us of why we cannot simply dismiss anything we don’t like, or that doesn’t fit our preconceptions, as “fake news” without examining the claims of truth being reported. These reporters aren’t willing to face death like this to score some quick political victory back home. They are hoping to make a difference in the world in the one way they know how: with their camera, their pen, and their voice. A Private War celebrates this aspect of journalism.