Movie Review – A Private War
Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl and A United Kingdom) stars as Marie Colvin, an American journalist from New York who worked as the foreign affairs correspondent for the British newspaper The Sunday Times. She was essentially a war correspondent and like most embedded reporters, was basically attached to some military unit and went with them into war zones in order to show what was happening. Her goal was to make people back in England and around the world care about the victims in these war zones or at least recognize that wars have victims, often women and children who are mostly overlooked. She provides their specific stories. She gives voice to the voiceless.
What’s weird is that director Matthew Heineman and writer Arash Amel follow the last 10 years of Colvin’s life. She died on Feb. 22, 2012 in Homs, Syria. Colvin was an award-winning journalist but was mostly recognized among the British press. It’s not as if she were a household name like Anderson Cooper, but Heineman puts titles on the screen that basically countdown to the incident that killed her in Homs. For example, when Colvin is in Iraq in 2003, Heineman will put on the screen “9 years till Homs” or words to that effect.
Without knowing what happened in Homs prior to seeing this film, it was pretty easy to assume what happened there, given the danger of the work that Colvin does. However, even if I didn’t assume, it’s an ominous countdown to have, but mostly a confusing countdown. Heineman might see it as a kind of hook to string the audience along, unless it’s assumed the audience for this film will already know the tragic end to Colvin’s life and where it happened. Colvin lost her left eye in an explosion in Sri Lanka and a one-eyed reporter would seemingly be a well-known thing, but I certainly didn’t know anything about her prior to entering the theater. The countdown therefore could just be a way to structure the movie, but it’s more or less a distraction.
Jamie Dornan (The Fall and Fifty Shades of Grey) co-stars as Paul Conroy, a freelance photographer whom Marie Colvin meets in Iraq. Paul decides to work with her from that point forward. He’s there to take pictures of some of the most horrific things to which Marie bears witness. He runs beside her when she runs into battlefields with gunfire all around them. It’s really a nothing role for Dornan. He’s not even really a sounding board for Marie. Beside Paul being former military after a court-martial, we learn nothing more about him like from where he hails and why he does what he does. He’s not much more than Toto from The Wizard of Oz.
There’s indication as to why Marie does what she does. She’s driven by a righteousness and a deep concern for the women and children in these war-torn areas. Yet, she realizes that her only way to help is to tell their stories. At the same time, the film seems to want to relate what kind of damage can be done to a war correspondent who’s as dedicated as Marie. Namely, the damage is PTSD. As Heineman takes us along side her to Afghanistan and Libya, we see the toll taken on her like the nightmares, but she wants to keep going back.
It’s not clear what effect came from her work though. She got a lot of stories out, but so what? It’s not to say that what she was doing wasn’t important, extremely so, but this film never shows us the effect or the consequences. Her work helped situations but we never see how or to what degree. She wanted people to care about what was happening, but then what? Even if her readers cared, what were they supposed to do? What was the average British citizen supposed to do about the Sri Lankan civil war? Without that context, the movie can’t feel like much else than an adrenaline junkie getting her fix, at least for the first, two-thirds of this film. It’s not until the film gets to the aforementioned Homs, Syria, that the true worth starts to be revealed. Yes, we can marvel or lament the death and destruction, as well as the other horrors depicted, but we don’t really feel it until we get to Homs.
In Syria, Marie really takes more time to talk to some of the victims. We don’t get anything about what the Syrian conflict is even about, but we don’t need it. All we need is that people are being killed needlessly. The killed are being called terrorists, but, Marie is trying to show that they’re not. It’s the most effective sequence in the whole film, but it comes late and literally minutes before the end. It’s therefore not enough and it only makes the first, two-thirds feel like a drag or a lecture about how bad things are around the world.
Yet, I suppose that’s all Heineman wanted to do. He reveals how bad things are around the world and the danger that some reporters put themselves in order to share that information and keep us informed. As a person who respects journalism, it’s only confirmation bias. Other than that, Heineman’s film might fail for trying to cover so much. Even though ten years of a person’s life might not be a lot, but considering all the places Colvin went, ten years might be too much for this film. Other films about war correspondents or photojournalists in war-torn areas normally focus on one place and on one conflict.
In this film, Marie is bouncing from Sri Lanka to Iraq to Afghanistan to Libya to Syria. In films like The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), Welcome to Sarajevo (1997), The Hunting Party (2007), Triage (2009) and The Bang Bang Club (2011), the focus is one place, one conflict and one country. That focus helps to sell the goals in those movies, which are similar to Marie’s goal here. The executions in those other films aren’t always fully effective either, but it’s arguably more effective than what Heineman is doing with this movie.
Rated R for disturbing violent images, language, brief sexuality and nudity.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 50 mins.