It is a crying shame that more people aren’t showing up in theaters to catch “A Private War.”
This film biography of “legend in her own time” war correspondent Marie Colvin is built on an awards-worthy performance by Rosamund Pike, with stellar support from Stanley Tucci, Tom Hollander and Jamie Dornan.
That’s right. Mr. “Fifty Shades of S & M” redeems himself for his Christian Grey sins with a moving, fearful turn as photographer and voice-of-reason (his function in the film, anyway) Paul Conroy, Colvin’s combat coverage sidekick during the latter part of her decorated career.
Colvin, an admirer of pioneering correspondent Martha Gellhorn, always went where the action was, covering the nasty, near genocidal civil wars that are the shape of armed conflict in the world today.
She bore witness, she’d say, so that others didn’t have to.
“I cared enough to go to” East Timor, Sri Lanka, Libya, Afghanistan, Syria and many others, “and write about it to make others care.”
There’s a fine new documentary about her, “Under the Wire,” that lets others describe what she was like. Look for it to turn up on The History Channel. But what documentarian (“Cartel Land,” “City of Ghosts”) and first-time feature director Matthew Heineman gives us is much more internal, a far more intimate, warts-and-all drama about what drove Colvin, what haunted her and the risks she took that eventually got her killed.
Pike nails the Long Island-born Colvin’s look and accent, her gruff, brassy demeanor and her compassion. No, she never got over the many faces of death and she never stopped “caring.”
Her modus operandi was to avoid embedding with forces on this side or that one. And even if she did follow this unit into action or sit on that side of a firefight, she rarely focused on soldiers. She always zeroed in on the refugees, the dead, wounded and displaced civilians, writing “the first draft of history” that was sure to “make that suffering part of the record.”
The statuesque beauty Pike dresses down, and how, picking up Colvin’s story at the tail end of her partying, love’em and leave’em (and divorce one) years, just as she’s racing off to cover the conflict that cost her an eye.
Her eyepatch became a signature, and her bravado took on a binge-drinking/crying jag urgency after that. Her “Private War” was with herself, competing to be the marquee foreign correspondent of her generation, shouting for prime placement in The Sunday Times, fending off challengers to her throne, wrestling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Pike lets us see the horrors in her head as Heineman’s film visualizes the viscera — entrails covering the ground around a bus destroyed by a roadside bomb, the blood that covers everyone and everything in hospitals, the deaths that really “marked” her and stuck with Colvin as she embraced conflict after conflict, as if fleeing her “normal” life of friends (Nikki Amuka-Bird), lovers (Greg Wise and Tucci) and her boss (Hollander, in fine form). The photographer she hires, on the fly, she drags into the maelstrom with her.
Dornan’s function, as Conroy, is to lay out the stakes even as he’s riding her coattails to fame. Pike’s Colvin may show dismay and conviction, but Dornan’s Conroy lays out the danger, the naked fear any non-soldier would feel running “to the sound of the guns.”
Colvin is given a reckless streak here, gambling foolishly and risking a lot of people’s necks in the incident that cost her an eye. Pike suggests a greed for that next scoop and a desperation to save the people she is writing about merely with her presence and the spotlight she brought with her.
The most telling incident in her career is given short shrift. That was the East Timor civil war where she used her presence quite literally as a human shield, and that had to be in her mind as she was speaking from Homs, Syria, via Skype with Anderson Cooper on CNN. Everybody is telling her to flee, and she won’t, and that’s the best explanation why.
The film also tidies up her grim death (“Under the Wire” has graphic audio), after going to some pains to show the gruesome business of war “like it really is” before that.
Pike is magnificent in this part, giving us layers to the hard-drinking live-for-today chain-smoker who could be moved to tears, repeatedly, by the suffering she saw.
Her reporting captured that, touching dispatches about mass graves and the wailing of survivors of victims of Saddam Hussein, finally seeing what happened to long-vanished relatives.
Marie Colvin saw and she made sure we saw as well, in words accompanied by graphic photos and video, the consequences of wars that politicians glibly catalog under “foreign policy.” But we, watching or reading at home, have the option of looking away, something Colvin never did.
See “A Private War,” and warn your friends. They shouldn’t miss one of the best pictures of 2018.
MPAA Rating: R for disturbing violent images, language throughout, and brief sexuality/nudity
Cast: Rosamund Pike, Stanley Tucci, Jamie Dornan, Tom Hollander
Credits:Directed by Matthew Heineman, script by Marie Brenner. An Aviron release.
Running time: 1:50