Marie Colvin lived and died in war zones. One of the most renowned combat correspondents of the past 50 years, distinguished by her empathetic prose and her omnipresent eyepatch, this Queens-born, Oyster Bay-bred journalist for the Sunday Times felt at home in hot spots around the world. Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Sri Lanka (where she would lose her eye from an explosion while tagging along with the Tamil Tigers), Syria (where she’d lose her life during a 2011 bombing in Homs) — these were the places that Colvin needed to be in order to bear witness and report back. “People connect with people,” she, or rather her screen avatar in A Private War, tells a younger colleague. “Find their stories.”
As played by Rosamund Pike, Colvin is steely, stubborn, courageous, chain-smoking, vodka-swilling, an old-school Fourth-Estater and saltier than the Sargasso Sea. She binge-drinks and beds strangers in foreign-locale bars while on assignment, tangles with her editor (Tom Hollander) while also giving him award-winning front page features and toughens up/semi-flirts with equally dedicated photographer Paul Conroy (Fifty Shades’ resident sadist Jamie Dornan). She’s also severely traumatized by having seen so much strife up close and personal. Only a cynic might suggest that such a role would help an actor garner extra recognition, notably the shiny gold kind, for their dedication and craft. Only a fool would fail to acknowledge what time of year this movie is hitting theaters.
What keeps this from being more than just a functional There Goeth the Great Woman biopic is not just Pike, who doesn’t just imbue Colvin with all of those aforementioned qualities but also gives her a spine and a soul. (She’s always been the sort of actor who can make semi-decent roles seem better than they are and great roles in movies like The World’s End and Gone Girl feel positively bliss-inducing.) It’s also the fact that director Matthew Heineman comes to this with what could be a deeper-than-usual understanding of the rush and regrets of Colvin’s profession. A documentarian by trade, he risked life and limb making Cartel Land (2015), a frontline report on the War on Drugs happening on both sides of the Mexican border. The 34-year-old filmmaker also profiled numerous members of Raqqa Is Being Silently Slaughtered, a collective of “citizen journalists” smuggling out footage of Syria’s civil war to the West, in City of Ghosts (2017). Heineman himself may not have been on the ground with them — “I would have been killed instantly” he told The Guardian — but you don’t spend that much time with people enduring such extremities without gleaning a few things.
You can hazard a guess that these aspects play into the urgency he brings to the filmmaking here, with the camera whip-panning and zooming as Colvin and Conroy find themselves in the shit, or following directly behind them as they run to shelter during a particularly dodgy firefight in Libya. (The cinematography by the legendary Robert Richardson apes war videography to an alarming, uncomfortable degree.) Or that Heineman and editor Nick Fenton aren’t able to cut from a dead body straight to a dinner party without grasping the disparity Colvin herself experienced — from watching women in black cry over dug-up corpses to accepting a War Correspondent of the Year accolade while clad in a little black dress.
It’s grace notes like that, along with an almost palpable sense of post-shelling grit layering many of the images, which keep you engaged with this retelling of a cut-too-short life. And it’s the limitations of the genre that prevent the movie from sometimes feeling like just another familiar story of trial, triumph and tragedy. Not that Colvin’s life was not extraordinary in every way, shape or form; A Private War just occasionally reduces that story to a series of recalled incidents and recounted exchanges, from war zone to war zone, one standard biopic beat to the next standard biopic beat. You don’t want to hate the player, but you do feel yourself getting frustrated by the game.