In war, the honour and glory are primarily reserved for those involved in active combat. Books, documentaries and feature films about war are often dedicated to the valour and sacrifice of the soldier or the courage and strategic brilliance of the officer. But seldom is there much consideration for the individuals who also place themselves in harm’s way to chronicle occurrences during the war and provide a perspective that would probably be lost forever in their absence – the war correspondents. It is, therefore, both remarkable and exceptional that we have a mainstream feature film dedicated to the life of the war correspondent.
A Private War is based on an article that appeared in Vanity Fair titled The Private War of Marie Colvin. Marie Colvin had a prolific career as a reporter, covering conflicts in East Timor, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, and Sri Lanka. But she specialised in the Middle East, covering wars in Palestine, Iraq, Syria and the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.
The film spans over a decade of Colvin’s life as a war correspondent. But the wars depicted serve merely as a backdrop, this is a penetrative psychological study of an individual who has lived through the inexplicable horrors of war for most of her adult life. But instead of seeking a quiet life in her home city of London where she can rest on her laurels, she finds herself drawn to wars like a moth to the flame. Colvin possesses an inexorable urge to inform and educate the world about conflicts but it also may be an unhealthy addiction with danger and perhaps a subliminal suicidal urge. It is almost as if this urge is a ravenous monster that will eventually consume her.
There are many incongruities to Colvin’s turbulent existence. Colvin functions better in a war zone, dodging IED and bullets while crawling through the rubble, reacting emotionally and delivering gut-wrenching dispatches about the appalling humanitarian crisis. But she is dreadfully awkward in social situations back in London, finding it impossible to have meaningful relations with people, her frequent disappearance to conflict zones doesn’t help either. Her urge for companionship results in one-night stands with random acquaintances and even her ex-husband.
When, on two occasions, she is honoured as Foreign Reporter of the Year by British Press she finds herself unable to process the emotions completely and derive pleasure from the accolades. She frequently uses alcohol and is perpetually glued to her cigarettes in an attempt to numb the pain owing to the recurring nightmares caused by her PTSD-ravaged mind. But despite, all this darkness and angst, she is funny and irreverent about her circumstances, even capable of self-deprecating humour about the loss of her left eye.
This is about the war within Colvin and an attempt the comprehend the reasons behind her almost obsessive determination, her boundless compassion and her demons. In fact, the various war zones serve as an allegory for Colvin’s deeply troubled state of mind. When she is killed in an air strike by the Syrian regime, moments after a powerful dispatch to CNN about war-ravaged Homs, it appears more of a liberation from her perpetual pain rather than a conclusion of a turbulent life.
Unlike other films on journalism such as The Post, The Spot or even All The President’s Men, the film does not adopt a sanctimonious tone about journalism, there is no attempt to portray reporters as fearless super crusaders of flawless moral character. Here we see editors wondering if Colvin’s dispatches are too grim for Sunday newspapers. We also see Colvin’s deeply conflicted but empathetic editor who is wallowed by guilt as he dispatches Colvin to war zones, but is also quite eager for a compelling story. We see Colvin herself turn unstable and reckless, especially when she downs too many vodkas. We also see other reporters in war zones as pretty damaged creatures. Despite all her efforts, Colvin wonders if “enough people will care when your story finally reaches them”.
Matthew Heineman whose previous works include documentaries such as Cartel Land about Mexican drug traffickers and City of Ghosts about a group of local journalists in war-torn Syria was perhaps the ideal candidate to direct the film. Heineman, scriptwriter Arash Amel, and editor Nick Fenton employ a matter-of-fact documentary style in telling their story and wisely avoids any gratuitous contrivances. The only dramatic build-up is the ominous countdown in the film that will eventually lead to Colvin’ final assignment. Much like Colvin’s goal in covering wars, the film is focused on presenting us the stark reality in its most undisguised version. If a fault has to be found with the script, it is a couple of half-baked supporting characters and occasional dialogues that seem straight out of the book of Quotable Quotes. The cinematography by Robert Richardson captures the volatile climate of a war zone, there is one particularly compelling prolonged wide shot of war-torn Syria that makes it look like a ghost town and is particularly haunting.
What makes the film is flawless is the central performance by Rosemund Pike. Pike underwent a physical transformation to capture the essence of Colvin with her perpetually dishevelled hair, her tobacco stained teeth, coarse skin and pirate-style eyepatch. Watch some old videos of Colvin to see how effectively Pike manages to capture the cadence, intonations, and pattern of speech as well as the body language of Colvin. But beyond the physical attributes, the voice and the mannerisms, Pike also does magnificently in portraying both her vulnerability and her indefatigable spirit, while adroitly depicting the conflicts that Colvin suffers from within and beyond. This is an individual who, despite her demons within and adversities around, has a passion for reporting the unvarnished truth such that she does not hesitate to pay the ultimate price for it and Pike captures this ethos quite adeptly.
This is by no means an impersonation, it is rather a vivid interpretation of Colvin’s spirit. Pike is ably supported by talents such as Jaime Dornan as her photographer ally Paul Conroy, the ever-reliable Stanley Tucci as Colvin’s confidant and finally the magnificent Tom Hollander as her editor.
In a climate where partisan hacks masquerading as journalists sit comfortably in air-conditioned television studios and parrot spurious stories citing ‘anonymous’ sources, this is a tale that reminds us all about the value of journalism where the quest for truth is the sole driving force.
A Private War is essential viewing for everybody and particularly for journalists.