Synopsis – One of the most celebrated war correspondents of our time, Marie Colvin is an utterly fearless and rebellious spirit, driven to the frontline of conflicts across the globe to give voice to the voiceless.
My Take – If we could take one thing from director Tom McCarthy‘s Best Picture Academy Award win for his film, Spotlight, and the immense box office success and pile of nominations for director Steven Spielberg‘s film, The Post, it would be that we as an audience love films based on real life journalism and the struggles of the people behind it. The film in discussion here also tells a familiar story of one such reporter, who risked her life covering violent conflicts around the world for more than 25 years.
Marie Colvin was a fearless war correspondent who was obsessed with giving a voice to those forgotten during war and was considered one of the most respected reporters in the world during her tenure at The Sunday Times in London. Three times she won the coveted ‘Foreign Reporter of the Year’ award, and was named ‘Journalist of the Year’ in 2000. From 1985 until her tragic death in Homs, Syria in 2012, Colvin reported from some of the hottest war zones on the planet. Her reports were a testimony for the faceless, voiceless civilians lost in the political gamesmanship of warfare.
This film, based on Marie Brenner‘s Vanity Fair article “Marie Colvin’s Private War” and from a screenplay by Arash Amel, is also a remarkably apolitical, as well as an unapologetic tribute to its subject, and whether you share a personal interest or disinterest in her line of work, the way she did it, without a doubt makes for an intense and engrossing account. While the film does have tendencies to veer towards melodrama in certain sequences, but the film, backed by Oscar winning actress Charlize Theron and directed by Matthew Heineman, who was nominated for his documentary, Cartel Land, manage to do complete justice to the extraordinary and courageous work of Ms. Colvin, which is also due in large part to Rosamund Pike, who here is simply astounding and delivers what could be described as her career’s best performance.
The story follows Marie Colvin (Rosamund Pike), a funny and flinty Long Island native, who became a star at London’s Sunday Times, making her that rarest of breeds, an American embraced by the British. While she attended parties, had dinner with friends like Rita Williams (Nikki Amuka-Bird), and important relations with her ex-husband David Irens (Greg Wise) and boyfriend, Tony Shaw (Stanley Tucci), Colvin always guarded her privacy and kept everyone a distance, perhaps because every new assignment meant she might never see them again. With the support and guidance of her foreign editor Sean Ryan (Tom Hollander), Colvin hops from one war zone to another, in an effort to bring us the horrifying stories we’d rather not know.
While her decision to cover the Sri Lanka civil war costs her an eye, she just put up an eye-patch and returns to work. Joining hands with photographer Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan), Marie continues her work from Afghanistan to the U.S.-led Iraq invasion, to Libya, all the while suffering from PTSD from the horrors of the war and preferably smoking and drinking herself to death. But as her concerned colleagues discourage her from ever returning to war zones, she knows there is a place she was destined to be at, covering the siege of Homs in Syria.
Director Heineman‘s unique perspective delivers a realism of war that we rarely see on screen. The film gives us a glimpse at the psychological effects of such reporting, and a feel for the constant stress of being surrounded by tragedy and danger. Here, director Heineman has made a very shrewd decision not to ennoble this woman, or lard the film with starry close-ups. It’s about an on-the-ground reporter who, in her words, simply wanted to make the casualties of war a part of the record. Showing us what that meant is enough. This is a somber film, often gripping, occasionally also angry-funny. Sometimes all at once: In Iraq in 2003, where Colvin has nothing but disdain for the concept of embedding with the military, she appalls and intrigues the photographer who will become her new working partner, Paul Conroy. And then they get stopped at a checkpoint manned by armed-and-menacing-local; it’s one of the most suspenseful, most terrifying things I’ve seen onscreen this year. I hadn’t realized I’d been holding my breath through the entire sequence until it was over.
While director Matthew Heineman may seem like odd but fitting choice to tell her story, mainly as he has directed highly acclaimed documentaries such as Cartel Land and City of Ghosts, but he has something in common with Colvin in that he’s equally praised for his fearlessness and his empathy which is why he is able to appreciate Colvin and strip her to her essentials to explore what drove her while knowing she will be in some sense unknowable, even to herself. He doesn’t shy away from her imperfections and insecurities, but he never uses them as cheap dramatic devices, either as he remains focused on the real story; Colvin’s ability to overcome her fears and show the world the human cost of war.
As Colvin takes less time to recover after each traumatizing experience, and she recovers less. But she cannot prevent herself being drawn to return again and again to the worst places on the planet to get the truth of them out. Divorced multiple times and left childless by two miscarriages, Colvin’s only reliable confidantes are alcohol and cigarettes. Her nightmarish visions aren’t relegated to sleep. Even something as innocuous as a flashing light or slamming door plunges her into a battlefield frenzy; re-living the close escapes and recalling the faces of the dead. After losing an eye to grenade shrapnel, she looks perfectly natural sporting a black eye patch. Colvin probably reasoned that an eye was the least she could give for such a good story. Which is why probably why she is in Homs when she knows that it could get her killed.
Director Heineman is unsparing in showing us the nightmare of civilians under deadly attack by their own leaders, and the literally apocalyptic devastation of the city. And the immediacy of Colvin reporting from the destroyed city live via Skype to CNN is horrific, but also rousing: she got out the story no one else had dared to. Thankfully at no point her personal drama gets bigger than the suffering of the people on whom she is reporting, and the concluding events in Syria are particularly well-handled and tactful. Here the film also gives us a glimpse into the battleground of big-time journalism. Colvin’s boss is constantly riding the line between concern for his correspondent and the desperate need to fill a 24-hour news cycle. Questioning Colvin’s mental stability, he sends a young reporter (Faye Marsay) to surreptitiously back-up Colvin on her assignment to interview Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. It’s a brutal reminder to the aging reporter that despite her accolades, there’s always someone younger to take her place.
If there is any hint of a grim “moth to a bloody flame” mystique of the war correspondent to this film, it is more than overshadowed, as it should be, by the film’s examination of the toll reporting from war zones takes on those who do it, here through Colvin’s experiences. However, what’s missing in this compelling character study is a clear dramatic arc. In chapter headings, the film counts down to Colvin’s death in 2012, while covering the siege of Homs in Syria, a somewhat effective tension builder, yet is not as effective as a bona-fide narrative. Ideally, the film spends more time with the victims that Colvin is fighting to protect. There are gut-wrenching scenes of young mothers forced to feed their babies sugar water because stress has left them unable to nurse, but these moments can feel manipulative in such small doses. Colvin’s personal life, too, feels abbreviated, which includes a string of ex-husbands and lovers, ill-equipped to understand the rigors of her job, fight for the emotional table scraps.
Nevertheless, Rosamund Pike is riveting as Colvin, a complex personality made of talent, intelligence, vulnerability and empathy. It’s quite a career boost for Pike, who has previously been known for playing ice queens in films like Gone Girl and Die Another Day. Here, she captures the traumatized Marie Colvin, but also the obsession of someone who’s DNA constantly drove her back to the stories that needed to be told. And yet Pike‘s performance never feels puffed up or mythologized. She could so easily be broken, but she refuses to give injustice that kind of power over her. In supporting roles, Jamie Dornan and Tom Hollander‘s subtle performances are also quite impressive. Unfortunately Stanley Tucci, Nikki Amuka-Bird and Greg Wise don’t have much to do. On the whole, ‘A Private War‘ is a formidable and fitting tribute to a courageous woman that is benefited by Rosamund Pike‘s brilliant performance.
Directed – Matthew Heineman
Rated – R
Run Time – 110 minutes