The most compelling reason to see “A Private War” is Rosamund Pike’s stunning performance as Marie Colvin, the American war correspondent who died in a bombardment while covering the Syrian government’s 2012 siege of Homs. Outwardly cool when she can manage to be, Marie lives a life of inward terror on the border between high-strung and unstrung; she’s a figure of anguishing contradictions and exemplary courage. But there’s another reason to see this very good, albeit flawed, film. It’s about someone who repeatedly risked her life to perform an act of faith—reporting from the world’s most dangerous war zones in the belief that her readers would care about the suffering she recounted. I don’t want to level accusations of saintliness at the producers and filmmakers—everyone has their own reasons, just as Colvin did—but financing and creating such a film in an increasingly crass marketplace, and an ever more violent world, is itself an act of faith that deserves support.
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The director was Matthew Heineman, in his feature debut, working from Arash Amel’s adaptation of “Marie Colvin’s Private War,” a Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner. Mr. Heineman is no stranger to the subject of journalism. He directed a superb nonfiction feature, “City of Ghosts,” about an improvised news organization trying, in 2014, to document atrocities inflicted by Islamic State foot soldiers on the Syrian city of Raqqa. Much of his new film has a strong documentary feel—the cinematographer was the distinguished, and distinctive, Robert Richardson—though some of the dramatic writing is clumsily formulaic and over-explanatory. (We would understand, without being told by another character, that Marie is addicted to danger.)
When we first meet her the year is 2001 and the place is London, where Marie is imploring her editors at the Sunday Times to send her to the Middle East to report on the plight of Palestinians. Instead they dispatch her to Sri Lanka, where she loses an eye to head injuries sustained in a firefight between government forces and Tamil guerrillas. “There are people dying here and nobody knows it’s happening,” she says in what amounts to her personal mission statement. (A wealth of clips featuring the real-life Marie Colvin can be found on YouTube, and another film opening this week, a documentary called “Under the Wire,” focuses on her and the photographer Paul Conroy, who was working with her when she died in Homs.)
In the course of this film Marie reports from combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan before plunging into the powerfully visualized chaos of Syria, and consumes toxic amounts of alcohol and tobacco in the process, despite the pleadings of those who admire, assist and love her. (The supporting cast includes Jamie Dornan, who plays Conroy, as well as Tom Hollander, Stanley Tucci, and Jérémie Laheurte as Rémi Ochlik, the photojournalist who died in the same bombardment that killed Marie Colvin.) A tribute to a singular journalist, “A Private War” is also the story of Marie’s private campaign of self-destruction—blotting out the horrors she makes vivid for others. In Ms. Pike’s fierce yet laconic portrayal, this tormented woman commands a fateful grace under the fire that will consume her.
Write to Joe Morgenstern at email@example.com
Appeared in the November 2, 2018, print edition as ‘Dateline Truth, Somewhere in Hell.’