In 2001, Sunday Times Foreign Affairs Correspondent, Marie Colvin, was covering the Sri Lankan Civil War when she lost her left eye. While accompanying a night patrol with the Tamil Tigers, the group were ambushed by the Sri Lankan Army. They threw themselves to the ground, but Colvin stood back up with arms raised and shouted “I’m not armed! Journalist!” A rocket-propelled grenade was the reply. For the rest of her life she wore a trademark piratical eyepatch – a symbol of her compulsion to illuminate the cost of war.
A Private War follows Colvin (Rosamund Pike) over a danger-filled decade. Based on Marie Brenner’s posthumous Vanity Fair profile, we track Colvin across conflict-torn regions. But unlike other reporters, dogged Colvin refuses to do as she is told. Pairing herself with war photographer Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan) in Iraq in 2013, she insists on entering territory prohibited to reporters, following a tip about a mass grave. Stopped at a roadblock, Colvin claims she is a nurse and offers her gym membership card with ‘HEALTH’ written across it as proof. As they drive away, they laugh and cheer – but only in relief from having almost been killed. She constantly treads the thin line between bravery and bravado.
Reporting takes its toll on Colvin, however. Her addictive personality merges with her psychological self-treatment – using cigarettes and alcohol to manage her PTSD. Pike’s capture of Colvin is outstanding. Her absence from most of the big award nominations is a discredit to her performance. She studied every piece of footage available of Colvin and, despite not being a smoker, smoked hundreds of cigarettes before starting. Pike is unrecognisable from her typical pretty, soft-spoken characters or even “cool girl” Amy Dunne in Gone Girl – though also an extreme character; here she is transformed in an often unflattering portrait.
But this is by no means a one-dimensional portrayal. We are shown a woman with a dark sense of humour: joking at a London dinner party with close friends about losing her eye; or revealing that she wears a fancy bra underneath her flak jacket so, she says: “If anyone is going to pull my corpse from a trench, I want them to be impressed.” Colvin’s softer side is also examined, such as dimly lit bedroom shots in which she examines her deteriorating and ageing face – her fear of both dying young and growing old coming together.
Arash Amel’s script does contain the occasional clichéd line from Colvin about the importance of her journalism. In particular, when she is reporting in Homs, Syria, and refuses to leave. Although she did in fact say that journalists are tasked with providing the “rough draft of history”, this was in a prepared speech and feels unnatural in the film.
Still, A Private War finds the balance of depicting Colvin without diminishing the horrors of the wars on which she reports. Matthew Heineman’s previous direction of conflict-zone documentaries has given him experience similar to Colvin’s, allowing him to delve faithfully into her narrative. But it has also driven him to do justice to the victims depicted by casting actors who were, themselves, affected. Recent journalism films, such as Spotlight and The Post, have tended to turn reporters into heroes – hopefully A Private War will start a new trend for a more honest genre.
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