A Private War Review
A Private War (2018) | Dir. Matthew Heineman | Cast: Faye Marsay, Jamie Dornan, Rosamund Pike, Tom Hollander | Writers: Arash Amel, Marie Brenner (based on the Vanity Fair article "Marie Colvin's Private War" by)
Sunday Times foreign affairs correspondent Marie Colvin was an extraordinary journalist and, by all accounts, a true force of nature. The American’s on-the-spot reports for the newspaper from Syria, Iraq and at least a dozen other conflict-torn countries were not only incredibly courageous but helped shine a light on all manner of appalling horrors and war crimes. Colvin – who was murdered at the age of 56 by Syrian forces in 2012 – fully deserves a biopic worthy of her fierce prose and stoicism in the line of fire. Sadly, this timid, by-the-numbers effort from City Of Ghosts director Matthew Heineman isn’t it.
The film kicks off with an odd-looking CG shot of Homs, the ruined Syrian city where Colvin spent her final days. Everything is corpse grey, buildings smashed to smithereens; a modern, Assad-made apocalypse. The story of the last decade of Colvin’s life is then told in flashback, starting from 2001 and counting down the years to her death. Initially, it’s quite an effective storytelling technique as we visit crucial moments both personal and career related, the tension slowly building. In fact, sequences in which Colvin loses the sight in her left eye during the Sri Lankan civil war, and the discovery of a mass grave in Iraq, are amongst the best in the film.
But proceedings soon fall into the trap of many biopics, being little more than a breathless checklist of stuff that happened. And whilst I realise A Private War is very much aimed at mainstream moviegoers, who may not be familiar with Colvin or her work, it is a visually prosaic affair that not even Robert Richardson’s immersive cinematography or Heineman's own documentary-style flourishes render particularly memorable.
The film’s depiction of Colvin is also frustrating. In truth, Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) is probably too young, too pretty and too British to properly convince as a grizzled 50-something Yank, who saw more combat in her life than most soldiers. Pike does her best impersonating a woman who seems only to have three personality traits: driven, drunk and mentally scarred. At the end, you feel you know lots of facts about her but not nearly enough about what really made her tick. Colvin says she’s compelled to tell the truth about the terrible things she witnesses ("I see it so you don't have to"), but are given little clue where such a motivation, bordering on obsession, comes from. In fact, you see nothing of Colvin’s early life at all and that makes it rather hard to truly figure her out.
A Private War also borders on hagiography. Seemingly, Colvin’s only vices were smoking, drinking and simply caring too much. It gets genuinely irritating after a while, one character underlining her status as an incorrigible but saintly maverick when they tell her: “Everybody loves you, but you are a pain in the fucking arse”.
Her working relationship with the Sunday Times’ Sean Ryan (Tom Hollander) plays out like every other clichéd on-screen editor/reporter dynamic you’ve ever seen. She’s a loose cannon! He finds her exasperating! But underneath it all the pair share a deep personal and professional respect. And while Pike and Jamie Dornan, as photographer Paul Conroy, have a certain chemistry, his character’s role here is mostly to help set up her next audacious idea for a story (“We can’t just drive to Fallujah – we’ll be targeted”).
Heineman has made two terrific documentaries in the last five years – Cartel Land (2015) and City Of Ghosts (2017); fearless accounts of Mexico’s drug wars and so-called Islamic State’s occupation of the Syrian city of Raqqa respectively. Unfortunately, in A Private War – his first drama – that courageousness is jettisoned to a certain extent, and the filmmaker seems terrified of upsetting certain interests. Taking pot shots at the likes of Assad, Gaddafi and Saddam is fair enough but terribly easy (especially as two of them are dead). Speaking truth to power in Washington and London is a far harder undertaking though.
There’s no acknowledgement of what the US and its allies wrought in Iraq or Afghanistan, despite thousands being killed or displaced. And while the film makes fulsome mention of Gaddafi’s depravities, it’s silent on the disastrous consequences of 2011’s NATO-led military intervention in Libya. A Private War is too content to place the blame for the chaotic state of the Middle East (and elsewhere) at the door of a handful of monstrous despots but, if history teaches us anything, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
It’s a shame because Arash Amel’s screenplay (based on a Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner) is peppered with decent lines – “I’m not a fucking pirate,” says Colvin when the subject of wearing that famous eye patch is first raised. And the film’s best scene comes when Colvin is finally admitted to hospital to get treatment for PTSD – perhaps the one time she slows down for long enough to appear vulnerable and human. You learn more about the character in that short, simple sequence than you do in the rest of the movie.