Sri Lanka 2001; in a targeted attack on her as a journalist, she loses her left eye, and afterward adopts what will become her iconic eyepatch. Iraq 2003. Afghanistan 2009. Libya 2011. Syria 2012; once more targeted, this time in retaliation by President Bashar al-Assad for her reporting on the government siege and massacre of civilians in Homs, she is killed. Marie Colvin was 56 years old.
As someone notes here with bitter humor, “there are no old and bold journalists.” And we don’t get many movies about them… and even fewer about a woman who is this fearless, this badass, this outrageously good at her important work. It’s not that these women do not move through the world. They do. We just don’t get the movies celebrating them. We need them.
Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Matthew Heineman (City of Ghosts, Cartel Land) rectifies this disgraceful oversight with his narrative debut, a moving and important portrait of the legendary Times of London foreign correspondent and her brilliant career, of which the last dozen years detailed in A Private War were but the extraordinary capper. This is a somber movie, often gripping, occasionally also angry-funny. Sometimes all at once: In Iraq in 2003, where Colvin (Rosamund Pike: Beirut, Hostiles) has nothing but disdain for the concept of “embedding” with the military (“it’s like they’re drugging the journalists”), she appalls — and intrigues — the photographer who will become her new working partner, Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan: Fifty Shades Freed, Anthropoid). “We can’t just drive to Fallujah,” he sputters in response to her suggestion that they do precisely that. “Why not?” she wants to know, with a grin. And off they go without any soldier babysitters, not safe behind an army advance. And then they get stopped at a checkpoint manned by who-the-hell-knows-who-these-armed-and-menacing-locals-are; it’s one of the most suspenseful, most terrifying things I’ve seen onscreen this year. I hadn’t realized I’d been holding my breath through the entire sequence until it was over.
So many threads of urgent necessity come together in this formidable film. One big running motif is, inevitably, the vital need for unfettered journalism to reveal the horrors governments would prefer to keep hidden. This seems to get more critical by the day, more urgent still even in the years since Colvin’s death, as reporters face new dangers in a global culture in which even democracies are turning against journalism. The other major motif is what the film’s title refers to: the private war that Colvin was fighting, with herself. If there is any hint of a grim “moth to a bloody flame” mystique of the war correspondent to A Private War, it is more than overshadowed — as it should be — by the film’s examination of the toll reporting from war zones takes on those who do it, here through Colvin’s experiences.
Pike delivers the performance of her career, her Colvin a messy mass of contradictions the layers of which the actor unpeels for us with a sharp sensitivity. (Her Colvin seems pretty close to the real Colvin; Arash Amel’s [The Titan, Grace of Monaco] script is closely based on Marie Brenner’s 2012 Vanity Fair article “Marie Colvin’s Private War,” which you can read online.) “I hate being in a war zone,” she tells Conroy during a stay in a gently soothing hospital as she tries to recover from another of her recurrent bouts of PTSD, “but I feel compelled see it for myself.” She self-medicates with alcohol; uniquely feminine attempts to control her life and her fate include constant dieting in a culture of plenty even while she witnesses famine and starvation in her work, and her talismanic habit of wearing fancy underwear even in a war zone, a small personal luxury in the face of regular death. (It’s so refreshing to see a female protagonist who is more than a woman who might as well be a man, as so many “strong female characters” onscreen often feel.)
Colvin takes less time to recover after each traumatizing experience, and she recovers less. But she cannot prevent herself being drawn to return again and again to the worst places on the planet to get the truth of them out. Which is why she is in Homs when she knows that it could get her killed. Heineman is unsparing in showing us the nightmare of civilians under deadly attack by their own leaders, and the literally apocalyptic devastation of the city. And the immediacy of Colvin reporting from the destroyed city live via Skype to CNN is horrific, but also rousing: she got out the story no one else had dared to.
Was it enough, though? A Private War ultimately leaves us with the dispiriting worry that Colvin’s sacrifice — she knew her live broadcast would paint a bull’s-eye on her — was for nothing. Assad is still in power, six years later. The impact of journalism like Colvin’s lies in what we, the public, do with it. Her editor at the Times (Tom Hollander: Bohemian Rhapsody, Breathe) notes that Colvin has a particular talent to make readers care about whatever she is reporting on. The question that lingers after this War is: Do we care enough?
viewed during the 62nd BFI London Film Festival
• Under the Wire documentary review: journalists under fire in Syria (film about Colvin and Conroy, some in their own words and pictures)