A Private War, a film about the war reporter Marie Colvin, who was killed by a Syrian artillery strike whilst covering the Siege of Homs in 2012, reaches screens at a pertinent time. Given that the Syrian government has recently been found liable for her death by an American court, and following last year’s murder of Jamal Khashoggi which drew attention to the dangers faced by journalists, the film should attract a wide audience. It marks the feature film debut of Matthew Heineman, until now a distinguished documentary filmmaker, and one is left to wonder whether A Private War would have worked better in such a format.
Heineman’s previous work has also been about foreign conflicts, taking in events from the front line, and the strongest scenes here tend to come from the battlefield, rather than those exploring Colvin’s chaotic personal life. Her alcoholism, her diagnosis with post-traumatic stress disorder and her acknowledgement that she is unable to conceive children are all treated with poignancy, but are never dwelt on for long before we are back in the dust and debris of the Middle East. Indeed, despite the film’s title and its unrelenting focus on its compelling subject, we never get fully inside Colvin’s head: besides a brief reference to the dead father she still desperately seeks to please, the first forty years of Colvin’s life are neglected completely.
Perhaps this omission shouldn’t come as a surprise, though, as Heineman has said in the lead up to the film’s release that it shouldn’t be seen as a straightforward cradle-to-grave biopic so much as an accompaniment to and dramatisation of Colvin’s reportage. If the aim is to capture her essence and step beyond the mythology that engulfs this chain-smoking, eyepatched anti-heroine, then Heineman deserves credit for an honest and often depressing portrait of a woman who could be difficult at the best of times. More than anyone else, though, Rosamund Pike should be lauded for a terrific, layered performance as Marie Colvin. She captures the writer’s gravelly American accent, as well as her combination of stubborn confidence and crippling self-doubt. When footage of the real Colvin appears at the end of the film, the accuracy of Pike’s portrayal comes into sharper focus.
Despite the strength of the central performance, the supporting characters are underwritten and underused, serving merely as foils for the troubled genius in their midst. Tom Hollander is particularly wasted as Colvin’s editor, burdened with lines like “If you lose your conviction, what hope do the rest of us have?”, while other sections of the script come across as overly earnest, presenting Colvin as more martyr than journalist. The conflicts from which she reports blur and merge, with the Middle East essentialised as a violent, self-contained monolith, with no mention given to the role that Western countries might have played in starting these wars. The ‘white saviour narrative’ present here threatens to overshadow A Private War’s many positive aspects, among them breathtaking cinematography when hovering over the ruins of Homs, a well-considered structure which includes a countdown to Colvin’s death and, above all, an awards-worthy characterisation from Rosamund Pike.
Image: Martin J. Kraft via Wikimedia Commons.