A quiet night shattered by the sound of gunfire. The dark sky ripped wide open by the explosion of a launched grenade. Once bustling neighborhoods reduced to silent ruins, where civilians huddle in terror and pray for salvation. These dark corners found in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Sri Lanka, and Syria, were where American journalist Marie Colvin journeyed in her reporting for the British newspaper The Sunday Times. She brought the human cost of such conflicts home to her readers. She was the willing witness to unearthed mass graves, starving civilians, and children torn apart by bombs. She lifted up the voices of those disenfranchised by war to the wider world. In the biopic A Private War, Colvin’s work is celebrated, while the personal costs for her psyche-shredding vocation are explored.
Based on a Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner, A Private War follows Colvin through her adult life, weaving from frenzied sexual trysts to fiery debates with her boss to far-flung front lines, embedded in a city trembling from shelling. With a husky voice, a jagged swagger, and a gruff charisma, Rosamund Pike paints Colvin as an uncompromising warrior in her own right, whose weapon was her words and whose shield was her certainty. But witnessing such horrors takes a heavy toll on mind and body. A jaunty black eyepatch covered the physical damage done by a rocket-propelled grenade courtesy of a Sri Lankan Army. But privately, Colvin struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder, which splintered her steely demeanor, knocking her into a spiral of hallucinations and debilitating panic.
Acclaimed documentarian Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land, City of Ghosts) makes his narrative directorial debut with A Private War, which might explain the film’s emotional restraint. Despite some scenes of emotional meltdown, Heineman and Pike reject melodramatics, perhaps because those would be ill-suited to the material’s inspiration. Instead, they paint a story of a woman who refused to let the world see her fall to pieces, which makes the moments when she does feel all the more devastating. On top of this, the film has a radiant earnestness in educating its audience, not just about Colvin, but about the conditions in which war correspondents expose themselves to bring us the news.
Too often we think of journalists in shiny studios in safe metropolises, far from the horrors on which they report. This glossy and glamorous vision ignores the work of reporters like Colvin, and worse it bolsters anti-press sentiment that declares journalists are power-hungry elitists. There’s little that’s glamorous about Colvin’s work. Sure, she occasionally wins an award and pairs her eyepatch with a chic blazer for the occasion. But much of it is unenviable, grim, hard, and life-threatening. Even after she survives a dangerous assignment, the battle, the bombs, she comes home to sit with a shattered psyche, wondering what all this suffering is for and plagued by that pernicious thought.
A Private War offers a harrowing tale of war and indifference, both exposed by a journalist who was not fearless, but nobly overcame her fears to fight for a better world. Its execution is competent. Arash Amel’s script deftly gives enough context to allow us to follow the stakes as Colvin leaps from one challenging assignment to the next, and spends ample time unfolding her complicated inner life. But there’s an uneasiness in scenes where she’s not under fire. A standout is when Pike and Stanley Tucci share a cheeky flirtation that blossoms into a steamy morning after. Despite bringing some much-needed air into the story, the sequence feels rushed, as if Heineman feels impatient with anything that’s less than a life-and-death struggle. Still, Pike is incredible.
Elevating the script and overcoming the clumsy pacing, Pike creates a portrayal that is full-bodied and full-blooded. Her physicality that’s been swan-line in Pride and Prejudice and catlike in Gone Girl turns purposefully clunky. Colvin has no concern for appearing prim or being beguiling. But this “no fucks to give” attitude carries its own allure, which Pike captures with a roguish smirk and a defiant chuckle. She’s riveting to watch. And when the final moments of the film give you a glimpse of the real Colvin in an interview, you see how keenly Pike has captured her spirit and voice. In a crowded field of award season releases, A Private War might be overlooked. But Pike should not be.