“[Rosamund] Pike’s portrayal of celebrated war journalist Marie Colvin is a towering accomplishment.”
by Ken Bakely
An otherwise mostly standard biopic assisted by a tremendous lead performance from Rosamund Pike, Matthew Heineman’s A Private War is the a movie that succeeds largely on the virtues of an individual’s particularly outstanding work. Such platitudes are often tossed around as a generic compliment to a component of a film that is much stronger than the work as a whole, but Pike’s portrayal of celebrated war journalist Marie Colvin is a towering accomplishment. Colvin’s career stretched four decades, three of which were spent covering conflicts for The Sunday Times; the film traces the last decade of her life, from a 2001 grenade attack in Sri Lanka that blinded her in one eye, to the 2012 Homs raid in Syria where she died. The work she did was astounding, and the trauma she sustained (it is pointed out that she witnessed more warfare than almost any soldier) was immense. Such a life deserves a comprehensive treatment if adapted to the screen, and while this one falls short in many respects, Pike’s performance goes a long way to realizing what’s possible. She reaches into the thematic depths of what Arash Amel’s paint-by-numbers screenplay wishes to achieve and, through careful examination of the personal and professional strife faced by Colvin and all in her field, brings it closer with every scene.
When A Private War is strongest, it’s working with a precise combination of expressed and reserved ideas – that Colvin’s story is remarkable, and it’s also tragic that her line of work is so ubiquitous and necessary in the first place. Heineman goes to those places sometimes, showing grueling realities mixed with the unromanticized nature of real-life bravery: not shrouded in destiny or fatalism, but the admirable traits of people who acknowledge the danger in what they do, but also revere a greater cause which they hope to build. Colvin’s cause was, in her words, “to bear witness,” cutting through the confusion and working to produce accounts of veracity and immediacy. It’s a powerful message, and again, one that Pike conveys with the skill of a great performer whose filmography has taken them through the broad range of large and small-scale roles that would prepare them for the levels of complexity required by this one. She is a dynamic presence in every scene, selling even the clunkiest of personal exposition or obvious asides brought on by the often tentative mounting of the script. She portrays a human being as a human being, and as obvious as that should be, it feels like a near-radical act when so many biopics are content to turn their subject into a history book legend to avoid the extensive profiling required for a more comprehensive and meaningful portrait.
By its end, A Private War does start to lay the groundwork for a better future for these kinds of movies. There’s power in its straightforwardness; it’s much more compelling when showing Colvin in the field, or at home grappling with the deep personal effect of what she does, than it is when constructing stagey portrayals of other people realizing the necessity of her career or the ability she approached it with. And in that vein, while the movie’s message is unquestionably about the importance of journalists in every context, it’s one thankfully conveyed through the natural progression of exploring a particular journalist’s life and work, instead of automatic deference to some misplaced, pompous proclamation. How this comes from writing that hits all the beats in order, and would defer to pompous proclamation if given the opportunity, is something of a small miracle – and Heineman, a documentarian in his first feature outing, still seems to be working through some of the strategic bumps in trying to anchor the format switch. Yet the movie’s intentions are clearly realized, and conveyed with enough talent that even when the pieces don’t quite fit together, they make for a compelling package that calls out for more stories about the fascinating and vibrant value of watching depictions of other important people that are drawn from similar uncluttered expanses.