Movies about journalism tend to sanctify the profession by portraying reporters as rock-ribbed, unflinching crusaders. Even the best of the genre, like 2014’s Spotlight, doesn’t stray from showing journalists only at their most intrepid moments.
A Private War, a biopic about the late Marie Colvin, who was killed in February 2012 while covering the populist uprising in Syria, peels back its lead reporter’s layers, telling an intimate story about the personal costs of covering war that often feels as harrowing as the battlefields she visits. In Matthew Heineman’s film, Rosamund Pike discards her natural glamour, transforming into a ragged, hard-drinking, chain-smoking and deeply haunted person.
The film, adapted from a Vanity Fair article published after Colvin’s death, spans roughly the last 12 years of Colvin’s life, bouncing from one conflict to the next with interludes back in London, where Colvin nominally lived when she wasn’t filing dispatches from war zones for the Sunday Times. Already deep into her career, the Colvin we’re introduced to has seen some shit — from the Balkans to the Middle East to South Asia — that haunts her nightmares.
Yet, she continues to go back to the deadliest spots in the world, beginning with Sri Lanka in early 2001. It’s there, embedded with the Tamil Tigers rebel group, that Colvin steps into the line of fire and loses an eye to a grenade. By the time she recovers, the war on terrorism has dawned, and there’s more violence to observe. Afghanistan. Iraq. Afghanistan again.
Pike, in easily her strongest performance since Gone Girl, fully inhabits Colvin, down to the real journalist’s fierce Long Island accent and uncompromising approach to covering war. While other battlefield journalists focused on troop movements, the real Colvin built her career focusing on the suffering of people caught up in the bloodshed. She’s there to bear witness, and while a few of Pike’s speeches veer into corny-journalism-movie territory — “This is the rough draft of history” and whatnot — they don’t feel off-the-mark.
Heineman’s got a feel for the realities of war. A Private War is his first scripted feature, though he brings the same documentarian’s eye he brought to Cartel Land, an Oscar-nominated tour through Mexico’s drug war, and last year’s City of Ghosts, which followed a group of Syrian activists on the run from ISIS. The camera doesn’t hide Colvin’s pain — mental or physical — nor does it mask the bloody, visceral effects of gunfire and bombing campaigns.
Accompanying Colvin for most of her dispatches is photographer Paul Conroy, played here by Jamie Dornan (looking a bit puffier and shaggier than his Fifty Shades days). A former soldier who found a new profession that would take him back to conflict zones, Conroy is the only one who comes close to connecting with Colvin. A Private War does not hesitate to give us the consequences of enduring so much violence. The scenes not set in a reporting mission are the movie’s most harrowing. Colvin downs vodka martinis like they come from a firehose and is almost never without a cigarette. Outside a sequence in a rehabilitation facility clearly meant to treat PTSD — a condition she denies having — Pike lets each scene rip away a bit more of Colvin’s health and mental wellness.
There’s a cast of well-wishers back in London, of course — editors, friends, a boyfriend (Stanley Tucci) — but none of them can convince Colvin to dial it back even a bit. As much as Colvin’s deployments into these wars pull her apart inside, Pike plays it wisely as a dangerous addiction: as long as there’s an opportunity to bear witness to the horrors nations inflict on people, she’ll take it. Even an interview with Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi amid the throes of the Arab Spring feels like an interlude — by the next scene, with Gadhafi’s corpse splayed out, Colvin seems back in her comfort zone.
Once A Private War reaches the Syrian uprising, it’s clear Colvin’s unraveled even more, which has the unfortunate result of her wanting to run even deeper into the fires. The end is inevitable, but no less heartbreaking. It’s a reminder that the victims of war need their stories told, a responsibility that sometimes comes at the cost of the storytellers themselves.