In a week when the POTUS continued to rail on the press corps as “the enemy of the people” and rudely maligned some reporters, along comes a film about journalist Marie Colvin that couldn’t be timelier. The story of her intrepid career is the focus of A PRIVATE WAR, particularly the many conflicts in the Middle East and her battle to bring the truth of the atrocities there to the forefront. Each day she proved that journalists are not only necessary to shine the light on such sins, but as is often the case, they are the ultimate truth tellers when regimes and countries resort to lies to cover their crimes. The film’s message of bravery and righteousness is a call to arms for everyone in the media, and in relation, the world.
The film, directed by Matthew Heineman, and adapted by Arash Amel from the Vanity Fair article “Marie Colvin’s Private War” by Marie Brenner, starts with Colvin (Rosamund Pike) restless and anxious to do more with her life than write silly features for the London Times and bed her charming rogue of an ex-husband. Neither are her cup of tea, and she wants better opportunities. She jumps when her ambitious editor Sean Ryan (Tom Hollander) plunks her down in Sri Lanka to cover the turbulence there.
Colvin is lithe and womanly in many ways, but she clearly sees herself as one of the boys. She’s chain smokes, talks rough, and runs into danger as readily as any of her macho brethren in the press corps. She pays for such rashness by losing the use of her left eye when a Sri Lankan army rocket-propelled grenade goes off, and shrapnel and rubble hit her in the face. It doesn’t get her down though. If anything, having only a single eye propels her to double-down on her commitment to uncovering the truth as she sees it in these hellacious war-time settings.
Even when she’s in the hotel with her journalistic colleagues, Colvin is a hardened trouper. She drinks too much, talks trash with the best of them, and isn’t above sleeping with a colleague to get her rocks off. Pike tears into the vivid role and gives her best screen performance to date. That’s saying a lot, given that she was so outstanding in GONE GIRL and HOSTILES, but she apparently feels a kinship with Colvin. They both are pushing to do extraordinary work in a world dominated by men, and like Colvin, Pike is peaking by calling her own shots.
The film continually shows Colvin going up against men who want to protect her or doubt her acumen. The ambitious Ryan is just this side of supercilious, but it’s a credit to an actor as superb as Hollander that he shows his character coming around to seeing things Colvin’s way long before the script lets him find the truth. Photographer Paul Conroy (a stalwart Jamie Dornan) becomes her photographer and as tough as he is, even he has trouble keeping up with the intrepid Colvin.
Colvin may have overdone the “I can be macho too” themes at the time, showing a restlessness and stubbornness that borders on bullying and endangerment of her colleagues, just as the film sometimes goes out of its way to make Pike look haggish. Her hair is almost always a rat’s nest, and the yellowed fake teeth are unnecessary to persuade us of how she left girlishness back in London, but Pike manages to mix in a vulnerability that makes her essaying of the role all the more impressive.
Pike often hesitates mid-sentence, as if Colvin barreled into the conversation loaded with bear and chutzpah but then stops to be careful about the words she’s parsing in such dangerous locations.Her expressive eye does a fantastic job too of showing how Colvin processed the horrors all around her. It glazes over on more than one occasion when witnessing wounded children as well as her fallen colleagues. Colvin had a motherly side to her, even though she never had children, and it came out even in the worst of times, and Pike ensures we see it.
In fact, it’s such sensitivity that Pike finds in Colvin that makes the character one of the most multifaceted characters placed onscreen in 2018. Being so courageous helped the reporter run in where only fools dared, but it was her empathy that helped her make all that she found understandable and relatable to all those reading her stories. Her exposure of “fake news” and “official stories” ginned up by autocratic leaders helped the world see the actual carnage being perpetrated, and she presented the atrocities through a lens that made a difference worldwide.
One of the most ironic, yet clever, conceits of the film is how the narrative sets us up for Colvin’s end from the get-go. It starts with the siege of Homs in Syria where she lost her life while covering Assad’s bombing of his own people but then flashes back to all of the critical events in her life leading up to it. Despite accolades back home, and a brief but passionate affair with Tony Shaw (an underused Stanley Tucci), almost every chapter in her journey was one filled with extreme danger. Colvin could’ve been killed in any of the tempestuous places she was covering. It’s not like Homs was all that different.
Still, Colvin would have had it no other way. She thrived on the adrenaline of doing something so important. It gave her purpose and what she exposed truly mattered. It gives Pike purpose too as an actress to play such roles as she clearly has no interest in repeating herself. Pike wants to play characters of range and importance, and in Colvin, she found a perfect vessel. It’s one of the year’s best roles, performances, and contained in a film that undoubtedly matters. Now, more than ever.