A fascinating insight into an unimaginable existence on the precipice of war, anchored by a stunning performance from Rosamund Pike that is only let down by her supporting cast.
Across 25 years spent divided between frontlines and the foreign desk at The Sunday Times, Marie Colvin’s responsibility was frightening but simple: to make her readers see and feel the very worst situations that humanity’s gruesome penchant for bloodshed could produce. Chechnya, Lebanon, Iraq, Tunisia, Yemen, Zimbabwe – name practically any warzone since the fall of the Berlin Wall and you’ll find her bylines, delivering otherwise untold human stories direct from ravaged epicentres of conflict. Blink and you’ll miss it, but there’s a fleeting glimpse in Matthew Heineman’s biopic A Private War where she stands in an arid tableau with intestines strewn across background rockery, no doubt a regular occurrence while creating record of another fatal explosion. Within mere minutes of the late journalist’s voice opening the film as the camera pans over a vast, dishevelled concrete carcass – one so derelict that it’s near impossible to comprehend its former life as a thriving city in western Syria – comes a prompt juxtaposition care of verdant Sri Lanka’s aesthetic bliss. An early respite from horror and desperation, you say? Of course not: this is where a government army shoots a rocket-propelled grenade at her.
For Colvin and her colleagues, such is – or was – a normal day’s work, and A Private War excels in depicting the frank realities of this bleak existence, both on location and when shifted back to the comparatively tepid pace of her London high life. Though this is his inaugural feature work, Heineman’s pedigree as an Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker places him in ideal stead to take on such a raw story, capturing its underlying themes of addiction, atrocity, mortality, suffering, and trauma with powerful dignity and composure. First-hand knowledge helped shape its path, too: throughout filming in Jordan, the crew was joined and advised by artilleryman-turned-photojournalist Paul Conroy, who worked alongside Colvin until the very end of her career and serves as the film’s second fiddle, played – for some reason – by Fifty Shades anchor Jamie Dornan. Coupled with a supporting cast of genuine refugees, who exhibit varying levels of acting prowess but produce some of the film’s most chilling images in vivid recreations of what may indeed be their own distress, the result is an essential piece of harrowing cinema, where incessant brutality renders distinguishing between reconstruction and reality feel somewhat irrelevant.
Embodying the lead role with sombre gravitas, Rosamund Pike is practically alone in carrying this tremendous weight. Between uncanny replication of Colvin’s mannerisms and distinctive accent – think smooth New York with the sort of profound husk that could be brewed only her particular blend of chainsmoking and near-voyeuristic attraction to desolation – and even gestures as simple as (numerous) lingering glances into the abyss to process mental scars old and new over a Marlboro, her striking performance only serves to solidify A Private War’s perpetual sense of grim reality. Refreshingly, reliance on everyday resilience and unwavering compassionate motivation is not downplayed to instead glorify the dashes of ingenuity or recklessness, where Colvin places herself and colleagues in greater peril in pursuit of a stronger story – rather than painting her character as too much of a superhero, Pike offers a compelling insight into her fascinating, unimaginable existence.
Pike’s performance also carries a certain sardonic edge to Colvin, particularly when focus shifts to calmer climes – be it the Sunday Times office, luxurious dinner party debauchery, taking temporary shelter prodding at her laptop in hotels, or intimate flings with fictionalised amalgamations of her exes, played briefly by Greg Wise (twice married; struggles with her vocation dedication and breaks things off in an incredibly dickish fashion) and Stanley Tucci (caring and supportive; makes a bald joke so witty that it drew genuinely chuckles in our screening). As fleeting as these moments are, however, the drive to capture 11 years in 110 minutes never feels unnecessarily ambitious. A very small handful of geographically or chronologically ambiguous plot-shifting scenes aside, the film moulds its narrative by littering proceedings with sudden anxious transitions and debilitating flashbacks triggered by Colvin’s post-traumatic stress, treating “normal” life as the sporadic, alien concept to someone so captivated by their unusual, heavily discomfiting profession.
Unfortunately, perhaps through lack of opportunity afforded by the script’s laser focus on Colvin as the central thread of the sprawling range of locales, or perhaps through pure mediocrity, the sharp contrast between Pike and her core supporting cast saps away at that engaging charisma. Snippets of the relative frivolity of the Sunday Times office are about as close as it gets, with Tom Hollander mumbling his way through as an editor flitting between care and concern for his friend and maintaining a vulture-like distance between his desk and his staff, culminating in an overwrought Thames standoff where he panders through quivers to inspire Colvin back to the day job having repeatedly offered her the gardening section. (Surprise! That clip makes it to the trailer.) Despite having the effervescent Conroy right on hand to absorb dry wit from, a dreary Dornan shares just one real spark of it with Pike in a besieged makeshift media pen towards the close of the film – a highlight following an emotionless display at Colvin’s side mired in a tedious attempt at a Liverpudlian accent. While clearly featured in the film more to provide context than drive the narrative forward, a number of vignettes fall awkwardly, like Colvin’s bizarre interview with a sleazy Μuammar Gaddafi, where sometime Coronation Street actor Raad Rawi is somehow more lifeless when flirting his way through damning questions than he is when literally a corpse which jubilant Libyan rebels queue up to take selfies with under Pike and Dornan’s relieved gazes.
The timing of A Private War’s release in Colvin’s adopted homeland is not so much masterful as poignantly fortuitous, coming mere days after an American court ruled – spoilers ahead – that Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime is indeed guilty of murdering her and French photographer Rémi Ochlik in the Baba Amr district of Homs in 2012. One can only imagine how the film’s narrative may have shifted had filming commenced with the knowledge of this verdict, especially since Colvin’s peers have already bemoaned aspects of it that depict her as a flag-bearing personification of journalism’s more noble tendencies. Regardless, Heineman’s slight but sensitive dramatisation of her later years provides a breathtaking and important profile of a phenomenal journalist who, to paraphrase her own words, experienced the worst so that we wouldn’t have to. While far from either groundbreaking or revelatory, A Private War uses strong reverence and a stronger lead turn from Pike to become a truly gripping portrait.
A Private War, directed by Matthew Heineman, is distributed in the UK by Altitude Films, certificate 15.