Honoring a real life hero, A Private War shows the horrors of armed conflict

November 14, 2018

Talk about an interesting life. Marie Colvin, an American war correspondent for the British newspaper The Sunday Times, travelled all around the globe to cover some of the deadliest conflicts in recent memory. As she puts it towards the end of the film, she saw the tragedy so we did not have to, a maxim that best describes what A Private War is all about. Never shying away from the gritty reality of war, the film humanizes this psychologically disturbed woman, while also providing another timely message about the power of storytelling to affect change.  

The movie begins in April 2001, when Colvin (Rosamund Pike) loses the sight in her left eye while covering the Sri Lankan Civil War. Director Matthew Heineman’s pull-no-punches approach is evidenced early on, as the audience watches Colvin try to escape a war zone in the dark of dawn when, unexpectedly, a blast sends her flying through the air only to reveal her bloodied face. It is a violent and tense scene, effectively hinting at the horrors that await Colvin further down the road. She begins wearing a black eye-patch after the incident, a prop the film uses as a constant reminder of the ever-present danger that surrounds Colvin everywhere she goes, even at home. The contrast between the devastated, corpse-filled, chaotic sites she visits while working and the sober, quiet, and closed-room locations in London, at first may mistakenly suggest a feeling of security in the latter. However, it is not long before Colvin begins having frightening nightmares about her experiences abroad, revealing depths of the harrowing trauma she has endured throughout the years.

Her battle with PTSD takes center stage in the second act of the movie, as she struggles to get away from her increasingly perilous and unpredictable life. In these sequences, the sight of dead children as their grief-stricken parents desperately look for help is deeply upsetting, highlighting the frailty of human life in the face of man-made mass atrocities. Why would someone voluntarily bear witness to that? For a moment, Colvin appears to find an answer to that question, concluding that no one, perhaps not even her, should ever have to. Nevertheless, it soon dawns on her that if not her, no one will avow for the lost lives of men, women, and children at the hands of corrupt and draconian governments. As heroically unreachable as the scope of this task may sound, she decides to make it her personal crusade to tell as truthfully and thoroughly as possible these stories in an attempt to bring justice to the oppressed. In light of this, the next stop in her already diverse menu of conflicts is the Syrian Civil War, providing the movie with its tragic, yet fitting punch-to-the-gut ending.

In terms of acting, the performances are suitably understated, but poignant. Tom Hollander smoothly plays the role of the newspaper editor with a conscience, while Jamie Dornan welcomingly changes gears from his best-known role as Christian Grey, portraying the sympathetic photographer Paul Conroy. His final scene is heartbreakingly real, revealing an actor whose potential has not yet been properly exploited. Unsurprisingly, Rosamund Pike outshines everyone as Colvin herself. Her portrayal gets off to a rocky start, as Pike’s mannerisms and shaky delivery, despite being accurate, initially come off as too exaggerated. Yet, once the drama settles in Pike turns in an outstanding portrayal of a woman whose conflicting feelings towards war came to define her life. Pike’s tour de force is mesmerizing, impressively blending every hauntingly traumatized stare, revealing Colvin’s loathe of war, with deeply soulful eyes, revealing an unspoken, almost coercive fascination with it. I would not be surprised if this role gave her a well deserved second Academy Award nomination.

Working from an effectively brisk, yet thoughtful script by Asrash Amel, Matthew Heineman confidently takes the reins as director. His documentary background serves him well for A Private War, as he is deftly able to imbue his scenes with raw realism and a true sense of menace. His handling of war-zone sequences, usually through long, uncut takes, is riveting, while more quiet, drama-driven scenes appropriately allow the movie to breathe while also exploring some thought-provoking themes. Particularly noteworthy as well is Robert Richardson’s almost entirely handheld camerawork, which adds intimacy and urgency to the film. His camera, often held at shoulder level, follows Colvin throughout her journey, providing a unique and deeply personal perspective to tell her story.

All in all, A Private War might not necessarily be what we call a good time at the movies: its uncompromising and graphic depiction of war combined with the script’s somber, tragic undertones may be too harsh for some audience members to handle. That said, these qualities are what ultimately makes the film a must-see. Besides providing a compelling character study of a troubled woman, the film actually has something in its mind to say about the nature of conflict and the importance of those who risk their lives to communicate it.

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