A Private War review – portrait of a reporter in the line of fire

A fine performance by Rosamund Pike as Marie Colvin smooths over the faults in this impassioned account of the fearless war correspondent’s life and death

Taking its inspiration from a posthumous 2012 Vanity Fair profile by Marie Brenner, this narrative feature debut from celebrated documentary-maker Matthew Heineman casts Rosamund Pike as the renowned American journalist Marie Colvin, who risked her life to report from the front line, and seven years ago paid the ultimate price. “Why is the world not here?” was Colvin’s repeated question as she ventured into the most deadly – and often overlooked – areas of conflict. The answer seems simple: where Colvin felt an unstoppable need to witness and report on “the truth”, others often feared to follow.

Heineman’s film opens and closes in Homs, the besieged Syrian city that Colvin memorably described as “a ghost town, echoing with the sound of shelling and the crack of sniper fire”, in which terrorised civilians were cut off from supplies and medical care. As cinematographer Robert Richardson’s camera rises from the rubble like an ascending spirit, we hear Colvin’s disembodied voice ruminating upon her legacy, and concluding that “I cared enough to go to these places and write, in some way, something that would make someone else care as much about it as I did at the time”.

From here, we spiral back a decade, to Colvin’s home life in London, thence to Sri Lanka where, in 2001, she lost an eye in a grenade attack. Undaunted, Colvin adopts the black eye patch that would become a badge of defiance, and heads back into the fray. Teaming up with soldier-turned-photographer Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan), she travels to Fallujah in Iraq, uncovering a mass grave full of victims of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Haunted by PTSD (variously subdued by medical treatment and alcohol), Colvin continues to be drawn to danger zones, putting her life on the line in Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, while declaring that “fear comes later”.

Watch a trailer for A Private War.

Described by its director not as a biopic but, rather, “a psychological portrait of Marie Colvin”, this impassioned if occasionally contrived drama clearly draws upon Heineman’s experiences in making Cartel Land, his exposé of Mexico’s terrifying drug gangs, and, more significantly, City of Ghosts, which followed the heroic work of Raqqa’s citizen journalists – attention-grabbing documentaries that, like Colvin’s work, strove to put a human face on distant suffering.

Certainly, A Private War gives powerful voice to the plight of the innocent victims of conflict, such as the Syrian refugees who serve as extras in key scenes, and whose stories are recounted with chilling, heartbreaking authenticity. But Heineman is also focused on Colvin’s inner struggles, raising age-old questions of risk-addiction while finding something deeper and more altruistic in his subject’s motives.

Pike throws herself into the central role with tangible conviction, perfectly capturing what Brenner called Colvin’s “American whiskey tone”, and relishing the contradictions of a character who carried a copy of Martha Gellhorn’s collected war writings The Face of War while expressing a “defiant preference” for La Perla underwear.

The script by Arash Amel, whose credits include the execrable Grace of Monaco, is less sure-footed, conjuring none-too-subtle battles between lust for life and death wish (“You are like a moth to a bloody flame!” declares Greg Wise, playing a fictionalised husband) while staking out the key events of Colvin’s career. An on-screen countdown device (“London, England, 2001, 11 years before Homs”; “Marjah, Afghanistan, 2009, three years before Homs”) strikes a queasy note of predestination that sits uneasily with Colvin’s determination to take control of her own life. Yet Pike’s performance is gutsy enough to smooth over the cracks, pulling the audience into the drama even as cliches contrive to push them away.

As stalwart comrade Conroy (“the Scouser”), Dornan cuts a sympathetic figure, mediating between Colvin’s impenetrable exterior and the audience’s need for a clear point of identification. Tom Hollander walks a fine line between concern and exasperation as editor Sean Ryan, while Stanley Tucci injects an unexpectedly playful note of romance that unlocks another side of Colvin’s character.

Quite what A Private War (the extensive producer credits for which include Brenner and Charlize Theron) adds to our understanding and appreciation of Colvin and her work is uncertain. Last year, Christopher Martin’s gripping documentary Under the Wire painted a vivid portrait of Colvin and Conroy’s time in Homs, emphasising both her fearless reputation and her refusal to become the subject of the stories she was reporting. As such, there’s an inherent irony in any drama that places her centre stage. Yet at a time when news itself is under fire, with journalists demeaned and attacked by despots bent on obliterating the very concept of truth, perhaps Colvin’s story is more relevant than ever.


Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

The GuardianTramp

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