“A Private War” is a biopic of famed (within the journalism community) war correspondent Marie Colvin. It fits squarely in the war journalism subgenre. It was directed by Matthew Heineman and stars Rosamund Pike. She was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance. It also was nominated for the original song “Requiem for A Private War” by Annie Lennox. Stick around for the closing credits to hear it. It’s quite good. The movie was inspired by an article entitled “Marie Colvin’s Private War” by Marie Brenner in Vanity Fair. It’s a good read and proves that the movie is pretty accurate. It includes remarkable incidents in this remarkable woman’s life that were not covered in the film.
The movie is a full-circle movie in the biopic tradition. It begins in Syria in 2012. The camera pans upward to reveal a city of rubble from which Colvin is reporting. Off screen, she is being interviewed. She proclaims that the reason she put herself in dangerous situations like Homs, Syria is to get people to care about the plight of the civilians in war. Her mantra was not to acknowledge the fear until the job was over. Suddenly, we are in London eleven years earlier. It is established that Colvin is a famous journalist and she is fearless. She goes to Sri Lanka to visit a rebel village where the people are starving and dying from diseases. She does not care about the military situation. But she does have to embed with the military to get to her stories. Unfortunately, this arrangement often puts her in the line of fire. She gets caught in a fire-fight and loses an eye. From here on, she wears an eye-patch. She is also distinguished by her colorful bras that remind her that she is not a male correspondent. She does crave the rush of adrenaline and is addicted to war like the male correspondents. She also drink a lot like them. What separates her is her focus on the women and children. In one powerful scene she witnesses distraught parents as their little boy dies from shrapnel.
The movie globe-trots. Colvin is in Iraq in 2003 where she meets photographer Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan) who she teams up with. They go behind the lines to uncover a mass grave. She returns to England with a understandable case of PTSD and spends some time in a facility. She’s a mess. She chain-smokes (I counted 16) and is an alcoholic. And she is a war junkie, of course. “I hate being in a war zone, but I feel compelled to see it for myself.” After being “cured”, its off to Afghanistan and its IEDs. Then to Libya during the chaos of the civil war against Gaddafi. She interviews the dictator, who obviously likes her. And finally, she is in Homs, Syria.
“A Private War” is one of the better war journalism movies. It is also a good biopic. I was not familiar with Marie Colvin before watching it and this makes me feel bad because she died covering a war that I and most Americans don’t care about. Rosamund Pike is quite good and daring in her portrayal. She has a scene where she goes full-frontal to show the physical effects the war has had on Colvin. The rest of the movie deals with the emotional effects. I’ve already mentioned her various problems. Although accurate, she does behave like most male war correspondents from other war journalism movies. If you have seen movies like “Salvador”, “Under Fire”, “The Killing Fields” or the recent “Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot”, you already know war correspondents crave the risk of chronicling war. It is above average in the subgenre because of the performance of Pike and the direction of Heineman. The narrative structure is intriguing, but it can be aggravating. Although the movie does specify the time and place, the jumps are jarring. There is usually no background explaining how she got where she is. It is unclear how she got out of the mental facility, for instance. The home front scenes are used to establish the downward spiral theme, but the memorable scenes are the ones when she and Paul are in a war zone. For these scenes, the cinematography sometimes shifts to a war footage style that is effective in putting the audience with her. There is a recurring flashback to a dead girl, but I did not get the full significance until I read the article.
The cast is fine. Dornan is perfect as Conroy. He is brave, mainly because he lets her talk him into insane acts. Refreshingly, the movie does not have them fall in love and go to bed. Tom Hollander plays her editor and it is a schizophrenic portrayal as Sean Ryan egged her on at times and yet seemed to be genuinely worried about her. It is clear that she was going to do what she wanted to do, no matter what. Stanley Tucci is wasted in the role of her lover.
The home front scenes tend to be a bit melodramatic, but the war zone scenes make the movie into clearly a war movie. You can see where the adrenaline came from. She and Paul are often under fire. It is obvious why she had more reason for PTSD than a regular soldier. She was in the shit plus she witnessed the effects of war on innocent civilians. And she deeply cared about bringing their stories to the world. The movie is as accurate as you could expect for a biopic.
In conclusion, “A Private War” is a strong biopic of a strong, independent woman. She deserved this movie and hopefully it will accomplish what she strove for – world attention to the effects of war on civilians.
GRADE = B
HISTORICAL ACCURACY: I was surprised to find that Colvin was an American. The movie certainly leads you to believe she is British. Not because of the accent. Pike does an amazing job mimicking Colvin’s deep voice. Must have been due to all the cigarettes. She got a job with The Sunday Times on London and from 1886-1995 she was a Middle East correspondent. She famously was the first to interview Gaddafi after the U.S. tried to kill him in a bombing raid. He hit on her during the interview. She interviewed Yasir Arafat twenty-four times. Starting in 1995, she became the papers chief Foreign Correspondent. She went to Chechnya, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, and East Timor. In East Timor, she was responsible for saving 1,500 women and kids besieged by rebels. The movie covers the last eleven years of her life. It is admirably accurate in covering the events it chooses to highlight. She did lose her eye when an RPG landed near her in Sri Lanka. She spent the rest of her life wondering if she made a mistake by standing up and identifying herself as a journalist. She did meet Conroy on the border of Iraq, but she sought him out. He was famous in the journalism fraternity for trying to use a homemade boat to cross into Iraq. She nicknamed him “Boatman”. They did witness the uncovering of a mass grave, but they did not work together for another seven years. She did go in a mental facility for her PTSD. The movie simplifies the interview with Gaddafi, she was actually one of three journalists that talked to him and Conroy was not with her. In 2012, she crossed into Syria on the back of a motorcycle and ended up in Homs. She did do her last broadcast on BBC, Channel 4, ITN, and CNN. The movie uses the footage of Anderson Cooper. Her death is close to what the movie shows, but it omits that French photojournalist Remi Ochlik was also killed by the artillery shell. Conroy was wounded. Similar to the movie, they had an opportunity to avoid the situation. In reality, they had left the area in anticipation of an assault, but Colvin decided to return when the attack did not materialize. Midway through the tunnel, Conroy had second thoughts, but Colvin said she was going on no matter what and Conroy caved. Her two loves in the movie are fictional characters based on real people. Her husband was Patrick Bishop. They were married twice and both were dysfunctional. Her lover at the time of her death was Richard Flaye. His personality was similar to Shaw’s from the movie. Kate Richardson is a composite of all the young journalists that Marie helped. Norm Coburn is a composite for the several journalist friends/rivals that Marie lost over the years. In particular, he represents Tim Hetherington (“Restrepo”) who died in her arms after being wounded in Libya.