Portrait of a War Hero

A Private War
(USA/UK, 110 min.)
Dir. Matthew Heineman, Writ. Arash Amel
Starring: Rosamund Pike, Jamie Dornan, Tom Hollander, Stanley Tucci  
Marie Colvin movie
Rosamund Pike stars as Marie Colvin in A Private War
There is a war going on. It doesn’t have bullets. It doesn’t have bombs. It doesn’t have drones. Instead, this war is one of words, access, and angles.

The current battle lines have been drawn by the White House, which undermines the legitimacy of the press at every turn. Even recently, CNN correspondent Jim Acosta had his press credentials revoked with the White House circulating a doctored video to “prove” that the journalist had been rough with a staffer during a news conference. It’s in this context that A Private War is one of the most significant films of the year. At a time when journalism is fiercely under attack, this excellent film provides a portrait of a true war hero in dramatizing the story of Marie Colvin, an American journalist who gave her life to pursue the truth. A Private War is a tough and necessary reminder of just how real the news can be.

Colvin, played by Gone Girl’s Rosamund Pike in a committed and emotionally charged performance, reminds her editor Sean Ryan (Tom Holland) of the sacrifices a journalist makes while chasing stories on the front lines. “I see it so you don’t have to,” she asserts after years covering the atrocities of war for the foreign correspondence desk of London’s Sunday Times. This tense exchange sees Colvin fire back at anyone who judges a journalist like herself from behind the comfort of a desk. How can one scoff at or belittle a person who inches closer and closer to death, putting herself in the line of fire to interview people escaping the bullets or searching for loved ones?

A Private War shadows Colvin as she enters one conflict after another. In Sri Lanka, she goes deep into the jungle to score an exclusive interview with a Tamil leader and put news of a genocide on the front page. The dangers of the job are immediately evident in this thrilling sequence that sees Colvin wade through the bush with armed fighters. They encounter resistance and, when Colvin puts her hands in the air to show that she means no harm and identifies herself as a journalist, her opponents fire a rocket in her direction.

Colvin loses sight in her left eye following the incident, but the attack doesn’t sway her. True to the adage that “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind,” the narrow escape implores Colvin to open as many eyes as she can. She cranks out a massive feature that exposes the crimes of her assailants to the world.

The brush with death makes her stronger, as the urgency of her reportage becomes part of her blood. She dons an eyepatch to cover her mangled eye and wears it as a badge of honour. The eyepatch fuels a few good-natured pirate jokes to convey Colvin’s relatable personality, but sight becomes a running metaphor throughout the film as Marie refuses to turn an eye when wilful blindness runs rampant throughout the world. She goes to the frontlines again and again, scooping interviews with leaders like Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi and propelling significant human rights crises onto the global stage.

The film doesn’t fall into a hagiographic portrait of Colvin as it shows her pursue stories with reckless abandon. A ballsy stop at a checkpoint in Iraq sees Colvin endanger the lives of her guide and photographer, Paul Conroy (played in an impressive Jamie Dornan), by fibbing to armed guards that she’s a humanitarian. In a sense, she is.

Colvin flashes her gym card and takes advantage of the guard’s poor English. The ruse nearly gets her killed, but it also lets her enter dangerous territory and unearth a mass grave. There’s a method to her madness and A Private War puts audiences within the mind of a woman who thinks like a spy and acts like a humanitarian, combining a mighty heart with the crippling responsibilities that come with encountering violence day by day.

The time on the frontlines takes its toll on Colvin, who struggles with PTSD and alcoholism. There is a war going on within Marie Colvin as she tries to reconcile the horrors she sees with her thirst to tell more stories. Recurring nightmares about a young girl with her wrists slashed, for example, plague Colvin with the inevitable fact that she cannot save every life. As played terrifically by Pike and realized in this tough and timely dramatic debut from documentary director Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land, City of Ghosts), Colvin is a compelling eye through which to see global conflict. Pike has an uncanny ability to use her body to convey a character’s anguish, as Colvin’s stiffened neck and ever-expressive hands reveal a woman burdened with the moral weight of her occupation and the anxiety it breeds. Partly stripped of an actor’s greatest asset—her eyes—Pike remains ever expressive with her frazzled her and frayed nerves performing double duty. Colvin’s exhaustion and her determination are evident in every frame as she self-medicates with alcohol, and thrives on the rush of being in a conflict zone. When Colvin is safest on the streets on London, Pike looks as if she’s going through withdrawal.

Heineman draws upon his own journalistic rigour from documentary filmmaking and provides an all-encompassing view of the hell Colvin encounters. There are subtle details, like a severed limb strewn carefully in the corner of the frame as Colvin surveys the aftermath of a bombing, with which Heineman conveys the pervasiveness of death. Heineman and DP Bob Richardson provide an immersive view that is intimate yet expansive as Colvin gets close to the nitty gritty details she needs to see to tell the full picture. The bombed-out hell of Syria is an exceptionally heart-stopping feat as Heineman recreates the remains of Homs with jarring realism.

A Private War builds to Colvin’s final story, and perhaps her most significant one, as the drama leads to the devastation of Homs in the Syrian Civil War. Title cards flag the proximity of Colvin’s story by noting “X Years to Homs” with each milestone. The final act of A Private War is absolutely devastating as Colvin and Conroy gather evidence that shows the world that they’re being lied to and that countless Syrian civilians are being slaughtered. Colvin trudges through the remains of Homs and witnesses a city that has been annihilated by senseless warfare.

There’s a change in Colvin when she arrives in Homs and Pike’s emotional investment in her character asks audiences how one can remain an objective observer to such horror. However, A Private War reminds us that the story’s always better when the writer cares. We need more soldiers like Marie Colvin now more than ever.

A Private War opens Nov. 16 in Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal and expands the following week.