On 22 February 2012, war reporter Marie Colvin was killed by a rocket attack in Homs, Syria. In A Private War, an intimate and troubling film by director Matthew Heineman, we witness the final years of Colvin’s life, portrayed brilliantly by Rosamund Pike, from her work in Sri Lanka and Iraq during the early 2000s to her coverage of the Arab Spring and eventually the Syrian War. So too do we watch Colvin’s physical and mental unravelling as alcohol dependency and post traumatic stress begin to consume her.
‘I cared enough to go there,’ says Colvin, a resolutely old-school reporter who liked to get her feet on the ground. ‘Fear comes later when it’s all over.’ As was evident from the article in Vanity Fair that loosely inspired the film, written by Colvin’s friend and fellow journalist Marie Brenner, we are dealing here with someone remarkable and rebellious in her determination to uncover the truth of war. ‘I want people to know your story,’ she tells her desperate interviewees.
Most of the decisions Colvin makes in pursuit of this truth, both in life and in this film, are ones that very few people would take – the danger of her situation rammed home when she is shot in Sri Lanka in 2001. The attack left Colvin blind in one eye and led to her wearing an eye patch – a fact she jokes about here with friends over dinner. Undeterred, she is compelled to continue reporting. We watch her scribbling in a notebook over dead bodies and weeping mothers in Afghanistan and later confronting Gaddafi in Libya.
Pike’s transformation is exceptionally well done (it is unsurprising that she picked up a Best Actress nomination at the 2019 Golden Globes). She both looks and sounds like her subject, a woman much older than Pike when she died who spoke with a husky, tobacco-fuelled, American accent. In preparation for the film, Pike travelled to Lebanon with the Mines Advisory Group, an NGO dedicated to removing landmines from war zones and funded in part by UK aid, a trip that the actress says helped her understand the horror and noise of war. While there, Pike spent time in a place known as the ‘Blue Line’, a sensitive border area between Lebanon, Syria and Israel where 400,000 landmines stretch 120 kilometres, and where Colvin also spent time. This first-hand experience appears to have paid off – Pike’s performance is utterly convincing. She plays Colvin as a relentlessly determined woman, sometimes cold; a person who uses brief love affairs as a release and who remains utterly focused on her purpose – to tell the stories of real people.
Colvin’s softer side is also examined, mostly via dimly lit bedroom shots. In one such scene she examines her reflection in the mirror after the loss of her sight – the fact that the audience is only allowed to see the unharmed side of her face testament to an enduring vanity. This is evident too in the expensive underwear she wears beneath her flak jacket, a famous Colvin foible.
But it is her physical degeneration, mostly a product of excessive alcohol consumption, that is most powerfully conveyed, sometimes horrifyingly so. A scene in which she spits a tooth into the sink beneath the bleak, uncompromising lights of a dirty toilet block sticks in the mind. Never without a cigarette in hand, she smokes obsessively, both in the field and as she writes furiously from her hotel room or hospital bed. The habits that may have made Colvin exciting and good fun at a party are displayed here as increasingly damaging. ‘You were so beautiful,’ says her unfeeling ex-husband in response to the eye patch. There is little beauty left in this film.
Heineman’s background as a documentary filmmaker (he has previously tackled civilian journalists in Raqqa and Mexican drug cartels), is evident here. He employs a simple chronological structure with few cinematic flourishes, his war scenes often shot in bright daylight with the accompanying noise, dirt and dust in full relief. Perhaps inevitably, the secondary characters don’t get much room to shine. Colvin’s lovers are mostly insipid in comparison to her rigour. Her editor at the Sunday Times, played by Tom Hollander, is sympathetically done, though a fairly standard newspaper hack, pulling late nights in the newsroom, ever struggling to balance the desire to tell the truth with the need to sell papers. Jamie Dornan plays Paul Conroy – the British photographer who accompanied Colvin on her most dangerous missions – as a dedicated and devoted acolyte, willing to follow wherever she leads. There are, however, excellent performances from the extras, some of whom are real Syrian refugees. In a particularly harrowing scene, a father mourns his son, the actor in question having lost his own son in the Syrian war.
There are moments of respite from the violence, mostly at parties and in glimpses of Colvin’s love affairs, though more often than not these scenes are used to reflect the reporter’s downward spiral. As a result, the film is intense, even more so due to the on-screen countdown towards Colvin’s death – eleven years before Homs, nine years before Homs, one year before Homs. In the final scene, drawn-out and heavy with tension due to the inevitable conclusion, Colvin is holed up in a house in Syria, refusing to leave against the advice of the soldiers she is stationed with. By doing so she manages to conduct a live broadcast for the BBC, but the decision results not only in her own death but in the death of the French photographer, Rémi Ochlik, and the injury of other photographers and translators.
Not for the first time this raises the question of whether someone with such evident mental health issues and a reckless attitude to danger should have been permitted to return to the field (her decision to give up on the eye patch at this point perhaps indicative of her awareness that this could be the end of her life). The film doesn’t answer this moral dilemma but there are some poignant lines, seemingly written with the question in mind. As Colvin’s editor says: ‘No one in their right mind would do what you do Marie.’
Her take on it? ‘I see it, so you don’t have to.’
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