Our in-house critic, Wilfred Okiche, was invited to the 2019 International Film Festival Rotterdam as part of its Talents programme and is sending dispatches from the front lines of global film, enjoy.
Adapted from a 2012 Vanity Fair long read titled, Marie Colvin’s private war by Marie Brenner, A Private War is the haunting, sobering account of the eventful life and extraordinary bravery of the British journalist who was until her death in Syria in 2012, the foreign affairs correspondent for the Sunday Times.
A Private War isn’t the traditional biopic in the way that Hollywood biopics tend to be made. Instead director Matthew Heineman, making his feature length debut, approaches the material as a tough, slick treatise on the perils of war, in Syria but also in other troubled spots, and the devastating effects of armed conflicts on the victims.
Marie Colvin, the rock-star reporter is the vessel for this message and using significant events in her nearly thirty-year career at the Sunday Times, Heineman drives home his point effectively. Setting aside tricks of shock and awe for old fashioned blood bumping action and psychological plumbing, Heineman’s A Private war is a solid, traumatizing account of the life and times of one of journalism’s true heroes.
The details of Colvin’s life- and death on the battle front while covering the siege of Homs are public notice so Heineman, working from an earnest screenplay by Arash Amel, does not quite give anything away when he starts and ends his film in Homs, Syria bookending it with Colvin’s major career and personal landmarks. They include a high profile interview with the late Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, and the 2001 rocket propelled grenade incident that had Colvin lose the use of he left eye while crossing from a Tamil Tigers-controlled area to a Government-controlled area. She filed her story from the hospital bed in time for deadline and wore an eye patch afterwards.
The resulting picture is an assessment of a tortured soul who feared both dying young and growing old in equal measure and constantly sought to put herself in harm’s way in her bid to document the extremes of human behavior.
All of this is not to say that A Private War sanitizes Marie Colvin as some kind of redoubtable saint working for the greater good of all of humanity. Rosamund Pike’s Colvin is very much a living breathing tigress, ready to pounce not just on the lovers who catch her fancy, but also on colleagues whom she feel let down by. Pike twists her voice into a low growl, catching the physicality and uncommon drive of the woman and descending bravely into the nightmares that keep her up while everyone sleeps. It is a richly rewarding role, easily the most challenging work Pike has done since she made evil so delicious in David Fincher’s Gone Girl.
For her efforts, Pike received a Golden Globe lead nomination for lead actress in a drama. Pike’s Colvin is sexy and tortured and intimidating, all at the same time. She is complimented by a strong supporting turn from Jamie Dornan (Fifty Shades of Grey) who disappears into the role of photographer Paul Conroy a survivor of the attack that claimed the lives of Colvin and French photographer, Rémi Ochlik.
At the end of the day, Heineman leaves this very important part of Colvin’s legacy open for the public’s interpretation. A tense lunch scene with her editor, Tom Hollander’s Sean Ryan attempts to provide some answers but fails to explain clearly what drove Colvin time and time again to challenge death until it finally claimed her.
It isn’t normal that anyone would want to pursue a career as a war correspondent. Stranger still for any person to be as relentlessly open to putting themselves in harm’s way while in the line of duty. Marie Colvin wasn’t normal and A Private War makes this clear, even when the film does not quite know what to make of Colvin’s real motivations or how to explain them as convincingly as possible.