Having directed very well received docs about some of the world’s most dangerous places, Matthew Heineman makes his feature debut with the true story of a woman who lived in them — celebrated war correspondent Marie Colvin, who was killed in Syria while exposing the horrors of that country’s civil war. Honoring the journalist’s sense of mission but never shying away from the hard living and psychological damage that went with it, A Private War relies on the believability of star Rosamund Pike, who commits to this take on the character even when Heineman risks pushing off-the-battlefield drama too far. Thematically similar (though hardly identical) to Erik Poppe’s 1,000 Times Good Night, which cast Juliette Binoche as a troubled war photographer and which went practically unseen by Americans, the film has limited commercial prospects despite its virtues, and may find some observers hoping the director will stick with non-fiction.
Foreshadowing its end for viewers who don’t know, the film begins with overhead shots of an obliterated 2012 Homs, with voiceover of Colvin being interviewed about why she does what she does. We’ll learn later that it’s the actual Colvin in this recording, and for a stretch at the film’s start, it’s hard to get over the way Pike has replicated that voice — not just the British actress’ grasp of Colvin’s Long Island accent but, more importantly, of the brusque cadences of her journo-speak. Take any four words out of context and you’d be able to guess what this character does for a living, and that she’s extremely good at it.
Pike’s fierce performance invigorates a mixed-bag film.
Colvin is always getting awards, which makes it easier for her editor at London’s Sunday Times, Tom Hollander’s Sean Ryan, to tolerate her resistance to being directed. We’re barely past the narrative’s first glimpse of her in the field — reporting on Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers in 2001, she gets caught in a firefight and loses an eye (she’ll wear an eyepatch from now on) — when Ryan suggests that perhaps she shouldn’t go back out there. But a desk reporting job is not her speed, and she’s just hitting another rough patch with the man she married and divorced twice.
No sooner has she slammed the door on that cad than we find her in Iraq, predictably chafing at the U.S. coalition’s plan to “embed” journalists. Grabbing a freelance photographer she just met, Jamie Dornan’s Paul Conroy, she finds a translator and sneaks away to Fallujah. This episode, which establishes her bond with the photographer who’d witness her death nine years later, also demonstrates Colvin’s resourcefulness. We watch her use a gym card to bluff her way past a military checkpoint, then see how she verifies stories she’s hearing about mass graves: She hires locals with heavy machinery and starts digging, finding corpses and allowing locals to mourn their dead.
The further we get from war zones, the less graceful the film’s storytelling gets. Working from a Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner, screenwriter Arash Amel uses other women in Colvin’s life to quickly communicate things about her: A very on-the-nose conversation with young colleague Kate Richardson (Faye Marsay) has her recycling cliches about writing “the first draft of history” and showing the “human cost” of war; at social occasions, it falls to old friend Rita Williams (Nikki Amuka-Bird) to point out what others won’t. First, the message is “you’re not well,” when Colvin needs to check into rehab for PTSD; later (much too late, in fact), it’s pointing out Colvin’s alcoholism.
It’s notoriously hard to make the act of writing cinematically interesting; adding a dependence on booze and a plague of horrific flashbacks deepens the challenge for Heineman. One messy montage mixes scenes of a war zone one-night stand with woozy visions of home and fitful stabs at a laptop to produce copy one assumes is brilliant. Other scenes wallow even after making their point. On one of her breaks in between assignments, Colvin meets a new love (Tony Shaw), but the film doesn’t make enough of the relationship to justify such high-wattage casting.
Scenes of her at work do sometimes grip us, though, viscerally communicating the urgency Colvin felt about her work. In Homs, having gathered news no one else seems daring enough to get, she shakes off those trying to evacuate her so she can be interviewed by CNN while a building crumbles around her. It’s a lump-in-your-throat scene, and a decision that probably cost Colvin her life. But A Private War suggests Colvin was nearly incapable of doing anything else.
Production company: Kamala Films, Thunder Road Films, Savvy Media Holdings, Denver & Delilah Films
Distributor: Aviron Pictures
Cast: Rosamund Pike, Jamie Dornan, Tom Hollander, Stanley Tucci, Faye Marsay, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Corey Johnson
Director: Matthew Heineman
Screenwriter: Arash Amel
Producers: Basil Iwanyk, Marissa McMahon, Matthew George, Matthew Heineman, Charlize Theron
Executive producers: Erica Lee, Jonathan Fuhrman, Ashley Schlaifer, Jeffrey Sobrato
Director of photography: Robert Richardson
Production designer: Sophie Becher
Costume designer: Michael O’Connor
Editor: Nick Fenton
Composer: H. Scott Salinas
Casting director: Jina Jay
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Gala Presentations)