By Noah Howard
A rotating image of historical figures I admire, most casual history buffs could easily recognize the familiar faces that comprise my phone’s screensaver; LBJ, Roger Ebert, Hunter S. Thompson and Clarence Darrow are hardly niche figures. But one image has consistently stumped viewers of my phone’s background: a harsh photo of a woman in a simple black suit, eyepatch wound tightly around her face, glowering at the camera through her single eye.
That woman is Marie Colvin, subject of the biopic “A Private War” and perhaps the most legendary journalist of the modern age. Over the course of a multi-decade-spanning career (from the mid-’80s to her death in Syria in 2012), Colvin directly covered nearly every major conflict as a war correspondent. Her insistence on telling the stories of civilians directly under fire had her quite literally sprinting towards spraying bullets and ducking under mortars. As easily the toughest person to ever wear a press badge, she saw firsthand unimaginable death and suffering and kept going back. She saw friends killed in front of her and kept going back. She lost an eye to an explosion in Sri Lanka and kept going back. She lived with horrible, crippling PTSD, and, unsurprisingly, kept going back. And every time she returned to a warzone, she was never hesitant to stare the darkest depths of humanity directly in the face (literally so in her harsh and bold interview of Muammar Gaddafi), at direct and incalculable risk to herself, in order to do the essential job of bringing the true human cost of war to the masses.
“A Private War” fully appreciates this legacy, and revels in awe of Colvin (played by Rosamund Pike) just as much as she deserves. The film covers the majority of her 21st century career, and though it lacks a firm plot to tie it together, it maintains a sense of progression through intertitles that slowly count down to her dusty death at the fiery hands of Assad’s artillery. There’s not much arc to speak of; when we first meet Colvin she’s already both complete and broken: she already possesses the most indomitable pen on Fleet Street, she already sees visions of dead children laying in her bed every night and she’s already showing signs of the alcoholism and one-night stands that she’ll eventually rely on to escape her illness. But “A Private War” doesn’t need to have an arc. It’s purpose isn’t to show Colvin’s evolution, but to ground the mythic figure in humanity.
Director Matthew Heineman seeks to implant us within Colvin’s psychology. Scenes in the field are as brutal as “Saving Private Ryan” but lack the similar sense of chaos. They’re certainly tense (often playing out in near-real-time with almost no music to speak of), but unlike Tom Hanks’s pitiable soldier, Colvin feels comfortable improvising in the face of imminent death (“we’re aid workers,” she says to a soldier at a checkpoint, holding up her gym membership card and pointing at the word “health,” hoping that his English isn’t good enough to see through the ruse).
Editor Nick Fenton compliments this strategy by perfectly stitching together her outlook towards conflicts both personal and external. Colvin’s flashbacks frequently interrupt her everyday activities (which range from attending a high-class party or to scouring a bombing site), allowing us a window into the horrors that Colvin rarely reveals on her face. Scenes of conflict focus less on Colvin or her photographer Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan), but on the sobbing faces of those whose lives the conflict is destroying, mirroring Colvin’s own values about what, in a warzone, is the most important to report.
But of course, the editing and direction pale in comparison to Rosamund Pike’s performance, easily the best of her career (and likely to earn her a nomination for Best Actress). For most of the film she maintains Colvin’s tough stoniness, allowing her pain only to bleed through at the edges (a task made even more challenging by the fact that an eyepatch covers a large portion of Pike’s face). She may be used to seeing a child die, but she’s never unaffected by it. The screenplay, fortunately, still allows us ample opportunity to peek behind this facade, and in those moments Pike’s ability to reveal this soldier-journalist’s stark vulnerability is both disquieting and comforting, the goddess of war suddenly returned to fragile human form. It’s when she’s at home that she begins to unravel, her temper sometimes getting the better of her, and the explosions and screams in her head silenced only by a bottle of vodka.
It’s a shame, then, that the other people in Colvin’s life don’t receive anywhere near a comparable level of development. This may have been the right artistic decision; after all, Colvin’s dismal mind necessitates a movie with a dismal tone that doesn’t allow much room for anything other than side characters that feel removed in their mannerisms. Nevertheless, considering the value Colvin placed on individual stories, this failure is particularly ironic. Even Paul Conroy’s ample screen time (despite Dornan’s impressive performance) isn’t enough to save him from feeling like much more of a sidekick to Colvin’s superhero.
“A Private War” is a film that will have audiences glued to the screen despite their desire to turn their heads. Like any piece of wartime journalism, it forces us to confront harsh realities in a deeply uncomfortable and disturbing way, all from the cockpit of Marie Colvin’s mind. Yet at the end, we’re still left to wonder, how in the world did she end up that way, so tenacious that her list of feats makes Hunter S. Thompson look like a gossip columnist? But for “A Private War,” the origin story is irrelevant compared to a simple portrait of a woman who was partially blinded while trying to open the eyes of the world. In an age of corrupted reporting, it raises up an image of a journalist whose unyielding dedication to speaking truth caused her to become martyred in the names of those ideals. And in an era with a government that refuses to intervene to defend the defenseless, it reminds us of a person who dedicated her all-too-short life to giving the victims of war a voice loud enough that we, on the other side of the world, could hear their screams.
Contact Noah Howard at noah.howard ‘at’ stanford.edu.