In his narrative feature directorial debut, A Private War, documentary film-maker Matthew Heineman tells the inspiring story of renowned war reporter Marie Colvin (Rosamund Pike) who was killed while reporting on Syrian civil war. Although documentaries and biopics have differing structures, Heineman deftly translates his previous film experience into a brutally honest and shockingly delicate story of a reporter’s commitment to the pursuit of truth.
Colvin’s voice is perhaps her most distinguished characteristic, besides her eye patch. Despite working at The Sunday Times in London for over 27 years, Colvin retained a raspy American tone with traces of an accent from her home of Long Island—it functions as an embodiment of her grit and tenacity as a reporter. Pike’s ability to meticulously round down her naturally British accent into a flawless imitation of one of Colvin’s defining features demonstrates the intense amount of care and understanding she clearly put into the role, making for a more enjoyable experience overall.
Another aspect Pike excels at is building a natural sympathy for the character. The movie follows a set pattern of Colvin reporting abroad, returning home to struggle with the effects of experiencing such a high-danger environment, and ultimately deciding her job is too important to quit. In most movies, it becomes irritating to watch a character invariably make the same mistakes or even similar decisions. Pike’s intimate portrayal of the character, however, helps the audience understand and accept her decisions, despite her destructive tendencies of alcoholism and discontent with witnessing such intense violence.
A Private War is not as much about Colvin as it is about her perspective. The story limits itself almost entirely to Colvin’s own interpretation of war and resulting experiences. Colvin’s admiring photographer Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan) and Colvin’s love interest Tony Shaw (Stanley Tucci) serve merely as background characters on her journey. The audience is tethered to her even in places where it is almost unbearable to watch. The audience empathizes with Colvin as it witnesses her loss of function in one of her eyes, the unearthing of a mass grave, injured children, and death of fellow journalists.
Through this burdensome exploration, however, there are clear moments of levity that balance the time. Throughout the film, the audience sees love from her family, friends, boss, and boyfriends. The highlights of her support system back home makes it clear that the reason she returns to report is not as an excuse to escape or numb her personal life. In fact, it even makes her decision to return to such upsetting scenarios even more confusing.
The question as to why Colvin continues to report on the heinous acts of war despite the strain it causes her and the potential happiness she could have back home is the film’s focus. It is not about a woman struggling to find her voice, achieve happiness, or reassess her life—it is about her need to tell the truth, and the mental costs of it. This is wrapped up precisely when she proclaims to her boss, “I see it so you don’t have to.”
Truth to her is not the functions of governments in the various countries she visits, but in the tangible experiences of the people who are affected. She experiences what she does to make sure the voices of the weak, oppressed, and suffering are heard. Colvin is not addicted to her job—she is burdened by it. She feels she has to continue, however, because she knows if she doesn’t, someone else may not have the courage to. A Private War is an unapologetic celebration of her determination, integrity and, unique purpose in life.
Correction, Nov. 6, 12:56 p.m.: A previous version of this article stated that actor Stanley Tucci portrays Paul Conroy. In fact, Stanley Tucci portrays Tony Shaw and Paul Conroy is portrayed by Jamie Dornan.
Featured Image by Aviron Pictures