One of the most important jobs a journalist has is making sure people know what is really going on in the world. For war correspondents, gathering that information and then getting it to their readers is very dangerous. They risk their lives in war zones located in countries that likely do not want these stories getting out. That is the peril they willingly run head first into for the truth. And maybe also for some fame.
A Private War tells the true story of Marie Colvin, a highly respected war correspondent (it is based on the 2012 Vanity Fair article "Marie Colvin's Private War" by Marie Brenner). While her actions are certainly heroic, the movie does not present her without flaws. She is a stubborn alcoholic who is possibly as addicted to the adrenaline rush of war as she is committed to being the voice of those who have had theirs taken away. The good and bad of her exist side-by-side in an excellent performance by Rosamund Pike. It is a character study that has something valuable, and timely, to say about the role of journalists.
A Private War (103 minutes, minus the end credits) follows Marie on several different assignments beginning in Sri Lanka in 2001, taking her through the next eleven years. While viewers do learn about her personal life, the movie is really about the effect her work has on her. She has a strong passion for it but, when she comes home, it haunts her. There is the sense part of the reason she needs to keep putting herself in those situations is that when she is working, her head is clear. She is focused on recording the horrors she witnesses for others. However, when she is at home, alcohol is the only thing that can stop her from dwelling on the terrible things she has seen.
Rosamund Pike was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress in 2015 for Gone Girl. This performance is a lot more straight-forward than that one, though just as impressive. Much like in that role, she is essentially playing two different people. Here there is war Marie and home Marie. War Marie is fiercely motivated, clever and skilled. She figures out the story she needs to tell and does whatever she has to do to get it. If that means sitting in a room with a murderous warlord or traversing an active war zone, so be it. Home Marie, meanwhile, is the part of her emotionally scarred by her job. She is scared, maybe depressed and definitely suffering from PTSD.
Director Matthew Heineman makes a clear distinction between those two worlds. At war, the movie has an energy and immediacy absent when she is at home. That is deliberate. Pike takes advantage of it by easily displaying different characteristics depending on where she is. She fearlessly stomps through deadly terrain, but struggles to finish lunch without a glass of vodka. Pike makes both her courage and her vulnerability deeply human. It is a wonderful performance.
Heineman is a journalist himself, having worked exclusively in documentary before this. He obviously respects what Marie Colvin did, even though it came at a cost to her mental health. As Marie says in the movie, she went to those places so we would not have to. That is what journalists must do; go where we either cannot or will not and reveal the truth. This is a good time to remember how vital that is. That makes A Private War worthwhile. Its great lead performance makes it captivating.
4¼ out of 5
Rosamund Pike as Marie Colvin
Jamie Dornan as Paul Conroy
Tom Hollander as Sean Ryan
Stanley Tucci as Tony Shaw
Directed by Matthew Heineman
Screenplay by Arash Amel