A Private War: A danger-junkie's story with a mixed-message about war coverage

By Liam Lacey 

Rating: B

The way someone dies doesn’t usually define her life. Though in the case of  Marie Colvin, the American-born Sunday Times war correspondent who was killed in Syria in 2012 at the age of 56, her risk-taking approach to her job and determination to be close to the action made her death as predictable as any casualty of war. 

In the film, A Private War, Colvin’s is played by Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl, Barney's Version), an actress who’s typically reserved, bordering on stilted. She’s fully committed here in a performance of a woman of high convictions, a messy personal life, wracked by post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism. 

Rosamund Pike and Jamie Dorman look for war crimes in Iraq in A Private War

Rosamund Pike and Jamie Dorman look for war crimes in Iraq in A Private War

As we follow her through war zones, we hear, in voice-over (Colvin’s own emotionally flat Long Island voice from an archival interview, which Pike perfectly captures in the film) her thoughts about her profession, including the importance of suppressing personal fear. 

The movie. based on the 2012 Vanity Fair feature “Marie Colvin’s Private War” by Marie Brenner and directed by Matthew Heineman (he co-directed the documentary, Cartel Land) is presented as a portrait of flawed heroism.

Arash Amel’s screenplay is somewhat schematic, a long count-down to Colvin’s 2012 death in Homs, alternating between battle scene reporting and increasing personal chaos. We follow Colvin from the Sri Lanka civil war that cost her an eye, to the 2003 U.S. Iraq invasion, to Libya and Afghanistan and finally Syria.  

The emphasis is on her independence and resourcefulness: In Iraq, for example, she splits from the “embedded” journalists, hires a freelance photographer, Paul Conroy, (played by Jamie Dornan) and uses her gym card to pretend she’s a medic to get past checkpoints. Hearing a rumour of a mass grave, she hires a construction crew to unearth the bodies, and while Conroy captures the images, she interviews the mourners. 

Her editor, Sean Ryan (Tom Hollander) says somewhat trite things: That she’s a pain in the ass but the best at what she does, and he both cautions her about her erratic behavior, then throws her out in the field to win awards for him and the newspaper:  “If you lose your conviction, then what hope do the rest of us have?” he says.  If this were a drug addiction movie, which it sometimes feels like, he would stand as a co-dependent enabler. 

Stanley Tucci, in a fictionalized role, plays a louche, affectionate lover who meets her, half-sozzled, after a party, and stands in for her on-and-off again relationships with men.  Between interludes away from whatever war zone, she lectures her colleagues on the importance of “first draft of history,” goes to parties and has a series of disorienting flashbacks, often of a dead Palestinian girl lying on her bed.  

Off the battlefield, women colleagues and friends have the function of pointing out the obvious: “You’re not well,” or “How long have you been an alcoholic?” 

Throughout, A Private War, struggles with a question that Colvin asked repeatedly: What do you have to show to make people care about other’s suffering?  While the movie deserves plaudits for exploring the issue, ultimately it suffers from the same dilemma as media covering war zones, numbing us with a message of helplessness. 

A Private War. Directed by Matthew Heineman. Written by Arash Amel. Starring; Rosamund Pike, Jamie Dornan, Stanley Tucci and Tom Hollander. A Private War shows at the Cineplex Yonge-Dundas Theatre.