In 1999, on the war-torn, divided island of Timor north of Australia, some 1500 women and children were trapped and in danger of almost certain slaughter by invading Indonesian forces and their supporters.
American Marie Colvin was the only Western journalist on the ground there, and stubbornly refused to leave or stop reporting — doing interviews with media companies in the U.S., Britain and elsewhere — “bearing witness” to what was about to happen and warning the world of an atrocity in the making.
The Indonesians backed down.
In 2001, at the height of the Sri Lankan Civil War and the humanitarian crisis it spawned, her cries of “Journalist JOURNALIST” could not dissuade government forces from dropping one last mortar round on her, taking out an eye. She filed a 3000 word story, on deadline, while wearing an eye patch, the first of many.
And in February of 2012, she slipped into war-torn Syria and died in an artillery barrage of civilians by the army of genocidal dictator Bashar al-Assad.
“Bearing Witness” was Marie Colvin’s life’s work, and the title of an earlier documentary about her. “Under the Wire” is a fine new film about her, covering her full career and her death and timed to come out just before “A Private War,” the feature film about Colvin starring Rosamund Pike, hits theaters.
Colvin was a foreign correspondent who specialized in conflicts, showing up wherever fighting broke out — from Chechnya to Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone to country-by-country protests and insurrections of The Arab Spring.
Working first for U.S. wire services, and then for Britain’s “Sunday Times,” and appearing on TV in the process, she became a legend in her business — the first to talk to Gaddafi after U.S. air strikes failed to kill him, frequent interviewer of Arafat and other world leaders, but most importantly — as someone who did not lay back when the shooting started.
When the civilians who always come off the worst in combat zones would cry “Tell the World, TELL THE WORLD,” Colvin was their ally and their microphone.
“Under the Wire” uses archival footage of Colvin and extensive interviews with those who worked with her, including Paul Conroy, the British photographer/videographer who ventured into many a war zone with her over the years.
“But she was a complete and utter one-off,” Conroy says, always focusing on the human tragedy of war, brassy and brave and always “bearing witness.”
“It’s about what people, what people are going through” she said on one TV appearance.
Others echo Conroy’s “legendary” assessment of Colvin, called “one of the greatest war correspondents of our generation” by her Sunday Times editor, Sean Ryan.
Chris Martin’s documentary uses extensive footage shot by Conroy and others, and occasional recreatings, capturing not just Colvin in action but the chaos of any combat zone — jumpy hand-held footage of camera people running from gunfire or to a safer spot to ride out an artillery bombardment.
We meet their guide and translator for that fateful trip into Syria (Assad’s government didn’t want anyone “bearing witness” to the civilians it was slaughtering in the name of putting down an insurrection).
The harrowing nature of the work is the primary focus of this film and many others on this subject. But Colvin never comes off as the classic adrenaline junkie/Hemingway wannabe that too many of these films turn their heroes into.
She turned her lost eye and eyepatch into a trademark, her reputation into armor and a pulpit from which to warn the world about this genocide or that refugee crisis.
The most fascinating part of Martin’s biographical documentary is the detail — from interviews with survivors, found footage and recreations — we get about Colvin and Conroy’s most dangerous mission, which would turn out to be Colvin’s last.
Crossing the Syrian border with Lebanon in darkness on the backs of motorbikes, “a shadow gives you to another shadow” is the way Conroy described their trek.
Filing stories from the besieged towns of Baba Amr and Homs, appearing on TV with Anderson Cooper describing the “worst” slaughter she’d ever witnessed. Conroy and reporter Edith Bouvier remember death — a baby’s and later Colvin’s own, with grim audio of the moments just after the artillery round that fatally wounded her and French correspondent Remi Ochlik.
Fittingly, the film goes on after Colvin’s death as indeed the dangerous work does. One of the best things this History Channel produced film manages is take away the “They should never have been there” dismissal by the clueless who shrug every time a journalist dies. They have to be there because we need to know.
And the other is to strip much of the glamour off the profession. Nice hotels in places most people would be too frightened to visit aside, war correspondent is a grim, dangerous line of work that seldom allows for the peacocking we see such “characters” do in the movies. Far too often, they end up like Colvin, remembered but rarely living long enough to enjoy being labeled “a legend.”
MPAA Rating: R for language and disturbing violent images
Cast: Marie Colvin, Paul Conroy, Sean Ryan, Edith Bouvier, Williams Daniels,Wa’el
Credits: Written and directed by Chris Martin. An Abramorama release.
Running time: 1:40