Matthew Heineman’s A Private War is based on an article in Vanity Fair magazine titled The Private War of Marie Colvin. It was published in July 2012 after Colvin’s death in Homs, on the western border of Syria. Colvin died while covering the brutality under President Bashar al-Assad. She had made it into the site of a massacre perpetrated by Assad’s troops. She was the only journalist in the thick of the bloodbath, and she got there because of a lifetime of work.
Paul Conroy, her long-time photographer during her reporting assignments across the Middle East and Asia, had said that reporting from war zones was Colvin’s addiction. As the movie shows, it wasn’t her only addiction, but she felt the compulsive desire to be perilously close to conflict. Seeing the casualties of war that close left her deeply ravaged. Heineman’s adaptation of the magazine article by Marie Brenner features actor Rosamund Pike – one of Hollywood’s best in the current crop – playing Colvin. Jamie Dornan plays Paul Conroy.
The film is chronologically structured over the years leading up to Colvin’s death in Homs. We see her in the midst of a grenade attack in the lush forests of Sri Lanka, when she loses an eye. She watches bodies being unearthed in Iraq, to the collective cries of women. She asks Libyan dictator Colonel Gaddafi the questions the whole world wants to ask hi.
A Private War isn’t a story about war zones, and facts aren’t its strength. History and details of the conflicts are fuzzy. We see several countries, each with the same abiding images. But that is the point of Marie Colvin’s story that this film wants to tell – she wanted to be there and to speak on behalf of those who suffer the most in conflict zones.
Colvin is a singular woman. She has impeccable taste in clothes – she loves pearls, Prada flak jackets, dark red nail paint and La Perla bras. She can’t do without cigarettes and vodka martinis. She has had failed and floundering relationships (the cutest is with a man named Tony Shaw, played by Stanley Tucci). She wants to be a mother like her sister. Fearless and poised while in the field, Colvin is unable to process some of the violence she witnesses, and is on a self-destructive path. The only therapy she gets close to is talking to Paul, who is constantly by her side on these journeys.
The soul and centre of the film is Rosamund Pike, and she delivers a power-packed performance. She has a lot of raw material to work with – Colvin leaves behind a vast body of work and videos of herself talking and reporting. Besides the physical demands of the role, which include Pike adopting Colvin’s drawl, she brings out a sense of defiance and intuition that are central to the reporter’s life.
A Private War is a reaffirmation of classic, patient, note-taking journalism that wants to get there first, but also to connect the dots that lead to an event. It reminds us about the humanism that drives the life of some war correspondents and the risks they take for the sake of the truth.