Matthew Heineman, best-known for his acclaimed documentaries Cartel Land and City of Ghosts, seamlessly makes the transition to fiction with the utterly absorbing and emotionally searing Marie Colvin drama A Private War.
Anchored by a career-best performance from Rosamund Pike and flawless direction and storytelling by Heineman, A Private War - named after and based on a Vanity Fair article – tells the tragic story of famed Sunday Times reporter Colvin, who reported from warzones including Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya before being killed in Syria in 2012 at the age of 56. We first encounter Marie before she acquired her famous black “pirate” eyepatch, as she sneaks under cover of night alongside a regiment of Tamil Tiger rebels in Sri Lanka, before being caught and getting her eye blown out by a grenade.
We follow Colvin as she tries to juggle building some sort of domestic existence in London with trips to the Middle East to cover the Western-led wars of the 2000s and the Arab Spring of the 2010s. We remain at her side as she makes what was to be the last journey of her life, to besieged Homs in Syria, where as one of the only foreign journalists left on the ground she provided the world with unprecedented detail on the nature of Assad’s heinous crimes.
This is no conventional rose-tinted biopic however. While Heineman shows us the accolades, glamour and adrenaline thrills one would expect from a film about a renowned war correspondent, he pays much more attention to the dark side of Colvin’s trade – namely post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction, injury, loneliness and the loss of close colleagues. A large portion of A Private War is dedicated to Colvin’s battles with her demons, in particular the flashbacks of horrific events her mind constantly replays and the copious quantities of alcohol she consumes to bury them. A dead girl, an innocent victim of some long-forgotten conflict, often appears as a bloodstained corpse on Colvin’s bed.
Pike, who amazed acquaintances of the real Colvin with her eerily convincing impersonation, is accompanied throughout much of the film by photographer Paul Conroy (played with quiet pathos by Jamie Dornan), who survived – badly wounded – the shelling attack that killed Colvin. It is through Conroy that we get to know the real Colvin hiding beneath the tough exterior, as the pair experience several life-or-death moments together and expose their vulnerabilities. Conroy forces Colvin to take her psychological traumas seriously, reminding her that “you’ve seen more war than most soldiers”.
Visually A Private War is beautifully constructed, with the flashbacks, dreams and leaps through time that are so revealing of Colvin’s state of mind rendered fluidly and poetically. Scenes of war and human suffering, such as children dying in a besieged hospital or women mourning the unearthed skeletons of relatives executed long ago, have a convincing rawness and realism that can be attributed to Heineman’s background in documentary filmmaking. Heineman himself has said he feels an “enormous kinship” with Colvin’s commitment to revealing the human cost of conflict. And that, despite all her personal flaws, is what makes Colvin’s story so profoundly moving.
Maximilian Von Thun | @M3Yoshioka