There’s a particularly intense scene early on in Matthew Heineman’s
A Private War, where protagonist, The Sunday Times’ foreign correspondent, Marie Colvin (Rosamund Pike) braves the pain of losing an eye to a rocket-propelled grenade while covering the Sri Lankan Civil War, to send home a story before her deadline. She grapples for her Dictaphone while on a hospital bed, rummages through her notes, and begins dictating her story — going so far as to describe an LTTE commander having to use a walking stick after three bullet injuries. The detail in her storytelling is writ large.
The film presents a ringside view of what it is like for journalists covering wars.
That one scene is an ode to Heineman’s biopic (based on the
Vanity Fair story, Marie Colvin’s Private War) that chronicles the life and times of the celebrated wartime journalist and foreign correspondent. As the title suggests, A Private War pays as much attention to detail to Colvin’s battles away from the war zone, as it does to her wartime reportage. It is as much a tribute to Colvin’s work, as it is a deep-sea expedition into her life, especially her battle with post-traumatic stress disorder and alcohol addiction. So detailed is its chronicle of Colvin’s personal struggle that there are scenes portraying the everyday struggle for physical balance that comes with losing an eye.
Deeply personal and moving, the film also presents a ringside view of what it is like for journalists covering wars. It also features well-known wartime photojournalist and Colvin’s photographer, Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan).
Broadly encompassing Colvin’s coverage of the Sri Lankan Civil War, the Iraq conflict, the war in Afghanistan, and the Libyan and Syrian civil wars,
A Private War lets the audience ride with press corps deep into conflict zones. It pulls no punches in attempting to reproduce the horrors of these conflicts — from Kuwaiti women hunting for mortal remains of long-lost relatives to Syrian parents who lose a child to a bomb blast. These horrors, for most part, are captured from Colvin’s perspective, as she reports on these wars.
One of the stand-out features of the plot is its crisscrossing with real-life incidents.
A Private War’s cinematography manages to capture warzones through breathtaking wide-angle shots as well as it attempts to visually chronicle the terrors of Colvin’s PTSD. One of the wartime scenes from Sri Lanka, shot entirely in fading natural light, features a continuous tracking shot that lets audiences become part of the action.
One of the stand-out features of the plot is its crisscrossing with real-life incidents, involving Colvin — like her interview with Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. It is a visual narrative of the many stories Colvin and Conroy covered on multiple wartime assignments — like her discovery of a mass grave in Kuwait at the height of the Iraq War, or the duo riding in the back of a pick-up truck to the Syrian city of Homs in 2012, going on to become the only Western media contingent to cover the its siege. It features her now-memorable LIVE broadcast on CNN while on that assignment, recounting the horrors of the Syrian War.
Through it all, and to her credit, Pike pulls off playing Colvin with professional ease. Dornan also seems to fit the part of a rugged wartime photographer. The film is also a bit of a master class on wartime journalism, especially the one scene where Colvin tells a fellow journalist, “people connect with people”, explaining why a good wartime story should narrate human suffering as opposed to merely reporting on wartime strategy at play.
A Private War is dark and it hits you where it must, and why not? Wars are full of suffering, and Heineman seems to tell his audience that as the central theme of his film, suffering finds its way to even those who may not live and fight in the warzone — all for a great story.