Revised 12-03-08

Movie Review: Drama/Biography – ‘A Private War

Directed by Matthew Heineman

Starring Rosamund Pike, Jamie Dornan, Tom Hollander, and Stanley Tucci

There are five wars in Matthew Heineman’s new film A Private War: the 25-year long civil war in Sri Lanka, the American war against Iraq, the violent final days of the Khaddaffi regime in Arab Spring-torn Libya, the still continuing civil war/extermination in Syria, and  the personal war of Marie Colvin (Rosamund Pike), the real-life American war correspondent who wrote for the Sunday London Times, and whose private obsession with covering these and other wars by documenting the suffering of their innocent civilian victims, is the focus of this engrossing film.

Marie, as one of her peers in the film comments, was “addicted” to her personal calling. Revered by rebel fighters whose causes she brought to light and idolized by fellow reporters who saw her as a hero, she relentlessly sought out danger at great personal risk, compelled by her conscience and perhaps her ego, to expose the crimes of ruthless dictators desperately trying to hold on to their power, an obsession that eventually lead to her assassination by the al-Assad regime.

Based partially on the excellent 2012 Vanity Fair article, “Marie Colvin’s Private War,” written by Marie Brenner five months after Colvin’s death, the film begins with an astonishing shot of the Syrian city of Homs, which starts with an aerial view of a single shattered building, gradually moving upward to finally reveal a city that has been utterly pulverized by nighttime sniper attacks, bombs, and daytime aerial assaults. This, it turns out, is also where the story will end. The successive conflicts that we see Marie cover in the years before her death, will each begin with a subtitle dating it in relation to the Homs attack. (9 years before Homs, 2 years before Homs, etc.). This provides the framework around which Marie’s story will be told.

In the film’s first sequence, set in 2001 Sri Lanka during that country’s uprising by the tamil tigers rebels, Marie is injured by a rocket propelled grenade (RPG), losing sight in one of her eyes. Writing in her hospital bed, she still manages to meet her deadline. Later she dons an eye patch, jokingly dubs herself a pirate, and makes the patch her trademark. Two years after Sri Lanka, she travels to Iraq, where she hooks up w/photographer Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan), who becomes her professional partner. (In real life, they merely met that day, only becoming partners seven years later.)

In one of the film’s most gut-wrenching scenes, the two cover the unearthing of a mass grave in Iraq, while the grieving survivors of Saddam Hussein’s and his son Uday’s mass carnage cry in overwhelming grief. (Colvin’s devastating description of the event, partially spoken over the scene by Pike, can be read, along with the Brenner article, online on the Sunday Times and Vanity Fair websites.) Soon we witness the downfall of Khaddaffi and the events of the Arab Spring in Libya, and finally the ominous events of Homs. But though these sequences take up much of the movie’s running time, the film’s true focus is not on the wars Marie covers, but the effect these experiences have on her.

The horrors Marie witnesses and writes so eloquently about, cause her to suffer a severe case of PTSD. She has nightmares, neglects her health and deals with the terrible things she’s witnessed through alcohol and one-night-stands, or “sexual adventures” as she calls them, all while trying to maintain her fractured romantic relationships. The screenplay, by Arash Amel, alternates the film’s four civil wars and uprisings with scenes of Marie’s gradual deterioration and her conflicts with Sunday Times Foreign editor, Sean Ryan (Tom Hollander) who often seems more concerned with the journalism awards she brings to the paper than Marie’s personal mental and physical welfare.

The movie’s structural approach could easily have given the story a disjointed or episodic feel, but it doesn’t because Marie and her moral imperative are so deeply connected to her career that they merge into a singular narrative. The eternal conflicts of war are her conflicts, her own personal battles, and the source of both her success and her eventual demise.

While most film biographies sink under the weight of straightforward chronological narratives that don’t effectively progress to a satisfying conclusion, Colvin’s life was so eventful, her obsession so destructive, that the film’s narrative almost seems like a fabricated plot. Naturally, this being a movie, Amel has altered the timelines somewhat and created compound characters for a cleaner storyline. But the film is largely faithful to Colvin’s history and the Vanity Fair article, capturing many of the nuances of the character Brenner describes.

None of this would have worked so well were it not for Pike, an Oscar nominee for her performance in Gone Girl, whose voice and face eerily resemble Colvin’s. Pike’s Colvin, her face stressed and worn, her voice roughened, as if through years of smoking and hard living, balances, with equal authority, Marie’s deeply empathetic nature with her hard-headed determination and flippant refusal to follow the rules. One minute she’s stubbornly arguing with Ryan or an ex-lover or flipping off a doctor who wants to help her, the next she’s tenderly interviewing victims or reacting with stunned grief at the human tragedies that she, Paul and their fellow journalists observe.

Her more dramatic scenes come later as Marie’s emotional breakdown accelerates. There’s a marvelous bravery in the way Pike explores the conflicts in Marie’s troubled mind. She’s fully invested in even the most emotionally exhausting scenes. In a telling moment, as she prepares to lie with her partner (Stanley Tucci), she observes her naked body in a full-length mirror through the distorted vision of her singular eye, touching and exploring her face and body as if for the first time. In her unending concern for others, Marie has lost touch with herself.

To say that Pike makes brilliant choices here and throughout the film incorrectly implies that these choices are transparent.  But you never see the machinery of her performance or doubt for even a moment, that it’s Marie you’re watching. It’s a complex, richly layered and riveting performance, and easily the best I’ve seen this year.

A Private War, as one would expect in a film about war, has its share of violence – the disembodied limbs and scattered bodies resulting from an IED Explosion, the blood and burns of bomb-seared wounds, the twisted skeletal bodies of buried victims tossed about by the cruel, indelicate metal of a giant loader bucket, etc. But there’s no Private Ryan-type gore here to make you turn your head or cover your eyes. The film’s battle scenes derive their intensity through our concern for the characters and the jittery verité of its cinematographer, three-time Oscar winner and frequent Quentin Tarantino collaborator, Robert Richardson. Richardson is at his best when he takes us inside the darkened, bombed-out hideaways where the reporters, with their rebel guides, huddle for protection, their faces illuminated by the blue glow of their laptop screens while explosions rock the ground underneath them. These are the kinds of indelible images that serve as perfect metaphors for the war correspondent’s life.

There’s not a single moment of A Private War that I didn’t find myself involved in. There’s strong stuff here, but the film is suspenseful more than terrifying, compelling more than unbearable. And everything we see revolves around Colvin and the experiences that defined her. It’s an exceptional film biography because it’s scenes don’t seem like separate points on a timeline. They flow together to form a mesmerizing portrait of a fascinating and courageous human being who cared deeply about the suffering of others and was passionate about getting  her message out to the world.

Rating 94/100

Personal Asides

Note: This may or may not become a recurring feature in which I will discuss my reactions to a film or its personal effect on me in relation to my own life. I have on occasion, experimented with incorporating these personal experiences into my reviews when I felt it was relevant or when I felt my experiences may have significantly affected my perception of the movie. This essay was originally part of the review, but I’ve decided to separate it from the main text so as to limit any distraction from the review itself. We’ll see how that works. What do you think? Is this TMI? Comments are always appreciated.

Liberal Guilt, ‘A Private War,’ and the Cowardly Pool Man. Oh My!

Besides being an extraordinarily crafted and acted drama, A Private War affected me in ways not directly arising from the film itself but rather, due to my own personal experiences earlier that day and the feelings the film dredged up about those experiences.

I had done some work with the swimming pool company I have worked with for most of my life to repair some broken pipes on a large construction project. It had snowed earlier in the week and days of daytime highs barely above freezing had left the site muddy and messy. Digging the pipe out of the shovel-heavy mud in the bitter cold had left me, a 57-year-old man of limited muscle mass, exhausted.

When my coworker Chuck and I returned to the shop where we store our equipment. Chuck, an angry and impatient man of diminutive height and a thick frame, who I knew to be a racist but have tried to tolerate, attempting to appreciate his occasional bouts of redneck affability for the sake of work, began an uninformed, Fox-News-distorted conversation with my boss about the virtues of donald trump. You’ve heard that conversation before. It’s the one that at some point always features the line “yeah but at least he’s keeping his promises,” as if it’s somehow admirable that an evil man has accomplished his evil goals.

At some point Chuck spoke about how President Obama was the most un-American president ever, a statement so absurd, especially given his support of the constitution-hating trump, that I felt no point in arguing and merely rolled my eyes. But then he said he wished someone would put a bullet through Obama’s forehead. I have no doubt he thought he was being restrained because he didn’t use the N-word; such is the self-absorbed denial of racists.

Immediately, my face became flushed with disgust. But rather than call him out, I scrambled for my keys and said, “I’ve got to go.” As I left, my boss proclaimed, “uh oh, we’ve blown Brian’s mind.” As I got in my car to leave, Chuck drove by in his vehicle and said “sorry” as if offending me was what he had done wrong. I’ve challenged him before for using that racial slur and made it clear to him that I disapproved of its use in my presence. “That’s just the way I was raised, was his lame excuse.” I lectured him that that was not in fact an excuse, as he was an adult and free to make his own choices about the kind of man he wanted to be. But this time I said nothing.

Later that night, as the impact of A Private War lingered in my mind on the drive home, I began to grow angry at my boss, also a supporter of trump who has, over the years, exhibited a racist tendency or two of his own. I have always considered him a basically good man, genial to all regardless of race and sexual orientation, who, despite the fact that his spine is considerably less rigid than the average earthworm’s, has been a mostly loyal friend and employer for 35 years. But it angered me that he was not equally appalled at my coworker’s violent remark, and that he had used the word “we’ve” which further aligned him with Chuck’s ugly hate speech. But as I continued to drive, it slowly occurred to me whom I was actually angry with. And that was myself.

We live our lives constantly bombarded by the horrors of the evil that men do. We see and read the photographs and daily news reports by people like Marie Colvin, Paul Conroy, Jamal Khashoggi, and the countless other brave souls who risk and sacrifice their lives to defy dictators and uncover their atrocities for the world to see. We are appalled. We shake our heads. We tweet about it perhaps, and sometimes even donate money to their causes so we can feel like we’ve contributed in some small part to change. And then we go back to our daily struggles while the memories of what we’ve seen blend together with all the other horrible memories, to be stored in the backs of our minds, neatly compartmentalized, and easily forgotten, while we watch bad sitcoms and play the latest Legend of Zelda game, enjoy the juicy delights of our favorite burger joint, or spend our nights writing inconsequential movie reviews.

We don’t spread the word, call our congressmen, or make any efforts to demand real change. And we do the same with the injustices we encounter at home. We leave the room when racists spew their vomit, too tired to bother with conflict, afraid of losing our jobs, and unable to find the words or courage to condemn them. Or we do our own versions of these things. And all the while the world stays the same or gets even worse.

Granted not everyone is a selfish snowflake like I am, but I think I represent most of white America in this. I’ve even had reservations about using the real first name of my coworker in this piece.. Maybe he’ll sue me. I doubt he’d have much of a case, but recent personal experiences have taught me that anything is possible in our fucked-up system of justice. Or maybe he’ll try to beat me up. He’s directed physical anger at me before, though I seriously doubt that also. I suspect he doesn’t care who knows what he believes and that, like racists all over the country, he feels emboldened by our president’s undisguised bigotry. But I don’t care if he does. Marie Colvin was murdered for her unyielding attempts to tell the stories of just some of the unknown millions of  people slaughtered by ruthless regimes during her career. The very very least a coward like me can do is risk the ire of one pathetic little racist named Charles Hedden.