A Private War Film Review
“What’s the world not here” Was Colvin’s repeated question as she sneaked to the deadly — and often overlooked — areas of battle. The answer appears straightforward: in which Colvin believed an unstoppable demand to watch and report “the fact”, others frequently feared to follow along.
Heineman’s movie opens and shuts in Homs, the surrounded Syrian city that Colvin memorably described as”a ghost city, echoing with the sound of shelling and the crack of sniper fire”, where terrorised civilians were cut off from supplies and medical care. As cinematographer Robert Richardson’s camera rises in the rubble such as an ascending soul, we hear Colvin’s disembodied voice ruminating upon her legacy, and concluding that”I cared enough to visit such places and compose, in some way, something that could make someone else care as much about it as I did at the time”.
Undaunted, Colvin adopts the black eye patch that will develop into a badge of defiance, and heads back to the fray. Teaming up with soldier-turned-photographer Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan), she travels into Fallujah in Iraq, discovering a mass grave filled with victims of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Haunted by PTSD (variously dimmed by medical treatment and alcohol), Colvin is still drawn to danger zones, placing her life at stake in Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, while declaring that”fear comes later”.
Described by its manager not as a biopic but, rather,”a psychological portrait of Marie Colvin”, this impassioned if occasionally contrived drama clearly draws upon Heineman’s adventures in making Cartel Land, his exposé of Mexico’s terrifying drug gangs, and, more significantly, Town of Ghosts, which accompanied the epic job of Raqqa’s citizen journalists — attention-grabbing documentaries that, such as Colvin’s job, tried to place a human face on distant anguish.
Certainly, A Private War gives powerful voice to the plight of these innocent victims of conflict, such as the Syrian refugees who function as extras in crucial scenes, and whose stories are recounted with chilling, heartbreaking authenticity. However, Heineman is also concentrated on Colvin’s internal struggles, raising age-old issues of risk-addiction whilst discovering something deeper and more altruistic in his subject’s motives.
Pike throws herself in the central character together with tangible conviction, perfectly capturing what Brenner called Colvin’s”American whiskey tone”, and relishing the contradictions of a character who carried a replica of Martha Gellhorn’s accumulated war writings The Face of War whilst expressing a”defiant preference” for La Perla underwear.
The script by Arash Amel, whose credits include the execrable Grace of Monaco, is significantly less sure-footed, conjuring none-too-subtle battles between lust for life and death wish (“You are just like a moth into a damn flame!” An onscreen countdown device (“London, England, 2001, 11 years earlier Homs”;”Marjah, Afghanistan, 2009, three years earlier Homs”) strikes a queasy notice of predestination that sits uneasily with Colvin’s determination to take charge of her life.
As stalwart comrade Conroy (“the Scouser”), Dornan dismisses a sympathetic figure, mediating between Colvin’s impenetrable exterior and also the audience’s need to get a clear stage of identification. Tom Hollander walks a fine line between concern and exasperation as editor Sean Ryan, while Stanley Tucci instills an unexpectedly playful notice of romance that unlocks another facet of Colvin’s character.
Quite what A Private War (the extensive producer credits for including Brenner and Charlize Theron) adds to our understanding and appreciation of how Colvin and her job is uncertain. Last year, Christopher Martin’s gripping documentary below the Cable painted a vibrant portrait of Colvin and Conroy’s period at Homs, emphasising her fearless reputation and her refusal to become the topic of the tales she was reporting. As such, there is an inherent irony in any drama that places her middle stage. However at a time when news is under fire, together with journalists demeaned and attacked by despots bent on obliterating the concept of fact, perhaps Colvin’s narrative is more relevant than ever before.