The harrowing A Private War demonstrates the sometimes deep cost of honest journalism
This review is part of Reel Nine’s coverage of the 41st Denver Film Festival. You can find reviews of other films at the festival here.
It’s no secret the journalism is under siege. From difficulties in keeping papers funded and alive to our own president marking the press as his enemy, the last few years have it made it clear that the importance of news gathering is lost on many in our society. The specter of “fake news”, both in its real and imaginary forms, has gifted those eager to push their own agenda with the ability to obfuscate the truth and distract us from the widespread effects of decisions made by those in power. Journalists, always considered a nuisance by those in office but once given some modicum of respect, are now seen by many as nothing but pests.
It makes sense, then, that director Matthew Heineman (City of Ghosts) would observe the current climate surrounding journalism and set aside his usual affinity for documentary filmmaking to craft A Private War, a film about pioneering Sunday Times war correspondent Marie Colvin (Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl), an obsessed reporter who dedicated her life to documenting the horrors of war zones first hand. Adapted by Arash Amel from Marie Brenner’s Vanity Fair article “Marie Colvin’s Private War”, the film documents Colvin’s career and personal struggles in the decade leading up to her death covering the siege of Homs in Syria, attempting to get a sense of the reasoning behind her insistence to witness the suffering of those living in the bloodiest corners of the world. Like the woman herself, the result is messy but well-intentioned and determined to find hope in the face of unspeakable darkness.
The film hinges on Pike successfully bringing Colvin to life and making her feel authentic, and she’s more than up to the task. Colvin on paper seems like a near superhuman figure, adorned with an eye-patch from an injury in an attack in Sri Lanka and treated like a mysterious god by her peers, but Pike pulls the humanity out of her mystique to create a layered, complex portrait of a woman driven above all else by a need to tell the truth. Pike captures the severity of Colvin’s mission in every bit of dialogue, making Colvin feel less like a folk hero and more like an outsider generally concerned with the state of apathy of in the Western world. She doesn’t hold back in bringing to life the depths of Colvin’s psyche, one rattled by PTSD and alcoholism, baring all of Colvin’s scars to often disturbing effect. But Pike’s performance forces you to empathize with Colvin despite what some would call an addiction to self-destruction, not buying into the “sexy” idea that this woman had a death wish but rather driving home the notion that she couldn’t look away because we wouldn’t look at all. Pike isn’t interested in psychoanalyzing her character; she’s dedicated to examining the pain of being someone who cared deeply, suffered for that dedication, and wished only that the rest of the world with care with her. Sure, the title may imply this a film more about Colvin’s own struggles than her work, but Pike ensures the “private war” raging inside the journalist is one that informs her mission rather than defines it.
Pike’s performance is so convincing that it often distracts from the slew of flaws plaguing the rest of the film, most of which come from its plot structure. Heineman, directing his first narrative feature and clearly a bit uncomfortable in the confines of making a film that’s acted rather than documented, relies on conventional biopic tropes to move the plot along. A subplot exploring Colvin’s various romances, based in some truth but largely invented for the film, allow Pike to flesh out Colvin’s emotional vulnerability but feel needless and staged in a film that otherwise feels frighteningly real. Her bonds with friends and lovers, including those with photographer Paul Conroy (a understated Jamie Dornan, Fifty Shades of Grey) and her foreign editor Sean Ryan (Tom Hollander, Bohemian Rhapsody), give us glimpses of a script eager to explore both the concerns of those who loved Colvin as well as her uncertainty in the light of hurting them, but it never lingers in the civilian world long enough to let these considerations have much of an impact. Scenes of tragedy, some starring real Syrian refugees, hit harder but occasionally feel borderline exploitative, the kind of moments included to contextualize Colvin’s suffering rather than the pain of those she writes about.
However, the war scenes are indeed flooring, with Heineman’s own experience filming in war zones obviously playing a large part in the authenticity of the chaos Colvin finds herself thrown into it. Bullets zip, buildings crumble, and comrades fall like flies as Colvin fights for her life nearly every waking moment, all coming together to create an astoundingly realistic portrayal of war made all the more terrifying by its civilian perspective. There’s also genuine glimpses of Colvin’s own soul in the way the film dedicates it’s back half to portraying raw, lengthy interviews with those affected by each crisis, mirroring Colvin’s own preference to recount personalized, individual stories rather than espouse some grand narrative about war. Heineman’s staging of war and Colvin’s role in it positions the film almost like an extension of her legacy, portraying the horrors of conflict with an honesty clearly designed to illicit the sort of visceral response Colvin desired us to have when reading her own accounts of the violence she witnessed.
A Private War is ultimately about legacy, not just of its subject but of a profession as a whole. It’s a film just as concerned as Colvin about the current state of reporting, about the dressing up of tragedy and violence and the disservice that does to those most affected by war. Heineman makes it a manifesto, a rage against the machine that decries complacency in journalism and urges us to remember the depths of its power and the duty we have to tell the stories of those whose voices have been lost in the smoke. It dares us to empathize in a time where we are told not to, knowing that while it’s unlikely there will ever be a time without war, we must continue to tell the stories of its victims. Colvin, writing for The Sunday Times in 2001, perhaps says it best:
Simply: there’s no way to cover war properly without risk. Covering a war means going into places torn by chaos, destruction, death and pain, and trying to bear witness to that. I care about the experience of those most directly affected by war, those asked to fight and those who are just trying to survive. Going to these places, finding out what is happening, is the only way to get at the truth. Despite all the videos you see on television, what’s on the ground has remained remarkably the same for the past 100 years. Craters. Burnt houses. Women weeping for sons and daughters. Suffering. In my profession, there is no chance of unemployment. The real difficulty is having enough faith in humanity to believe that someone will care.