Movie Review: “A Private War”

As a war correspondent for the U.K.’s Sunday Times, Marie Colvin spent her career in jungles and deserts and bombed-out cities. Flanked by men with rifles, she carried nothing but a notebook and backpack, dodging mortar fire, ducking and covering when she was told to—or, if the story warranted it, ignoring those orders and storming the breach. In 2001, she lost her left eye to an RPG attack while covering the civil war in Sri Lanka, a country that most Americans, myself included, couldn’t find on a map.

Colvin, played by Rosamund Pike in “A Private War,” the instructive and important new biopic about the last 11 years of her life, would wear an eyepatch for the remainder of her career. In the film, the eyepatch serves as a constant reminder of her sacrifice to expose the truth in the world’s most godforsaken places, and of the occupational hazards of her profession. It also makes her look like a badass, which can be equally important when navigating lawless terrain in Africa and the Middle East. It links her with James Joyce and the movie director Nicholas Ray, steely mavericks who forged their own paths.

“A Private War” is the first feature film from documentarian Matthew Heineman, and it divides its narrative between Colvin’s reportage and her recovery from it in London. Through Colvin’s dangerous travels, the movie is a catalogue of the major international horrors of the 21st century: the second Iraq War, where Colvin revealed one of Saddam Hussein’s mass graves in 2003; Afghanistan, in 2009; Libya, in 2011, where she covered the killing of Gaddafi shortly after interviewing him on the world stage; and Syria, in 2012, where she was the only American journalist reporting from the besieged city of Homs.

In between assignments, their shrapnel lingers. Haunted by memories and nightmares—Heineman’s free-associating editing rhythms expertly place us in Colvin’s head, linking current traumas with previous or imagined ones—Colvin enters a psychiatric facility to treat PTSD, whose symptoms she can no longer ignore. As soon as she’s cleared to leave, she’s back in another global quagmire.

Heinemen, and his screenwriter Arash Amel, endeavor to explain why Colvin was more comfortable embedded in an unarmored truck whizzing through a war zone than she was, say, raising a family in a quiet suburb. “A Private War” offers fresh insights into the addictive properties of war reporting, which for Colvin was less about the adrenalizing energy of combat than it was the bottomless compulsion to bring suffering to light, and make us care about the innocent people caught in the crossfire of dictators and terrorists.

Pike, unglamorous and Oscar-ready, encapsulates the private war of the movie’s title, presenting Colvin as a fearless force on the battlefield and a wounded survivor—physically, mentally, emotionally—back home, with a vulnerability that seems to surprise even herself. This manifests in one of the film’s most revealing scenes, in the psychiatric facility, when her self-described attempt at “psychobabble” to placate a colleague reveals raw feelings of which she wasn’t aware.

Not all of the writing is quite so tight: Amel, adapting his screenplay from a Vanity Fairarticle about Colvin’s life, cuts a few corners for narrative expediency, and even Heineman’s direction is not without its small manipulations. But what sticks in the mind unforgettably its Pike’s performance and her character’s almost singular drive for empathy and clarity in the fog of war.

I’ve been trying to play the typical spoiler game in writing this review, but there’s a reason I’ve been referring to Colvin the person, as opposed to the movie protagonist, in the past tense. Given Colvin’s passion for the facts, it seems disingenuous to be coy about the reality that Colvin is no longer with us. But did she die doing what she loved? Or what she felt she had to do? And how important is that distinction?

I fear that war correspondents are losing their institutional relevance to at least the American public. “In covering war, can you really make a difference?” she wonders in the movie, in a moment of existential reflection. On the eve of her death, CNN, along with other news outlets, aired a live interview with Colvin from a precarious media shelter in Homs, and she seemed to reveal profound truths to Anderson Cooper and his audience that shifted our perceptions of the complicated civil war.

Now, as cable news networks have become ratings-driven founts of opinion shows and horse-race domestic politics, there’s hardly room for humanitarian crises—perhaps on a weekend, if we’re lucky, and if the president doesn’t tweet another shiny object for the anchors to dutifully follow. I’d like to think there’s another intrepid Marie Colvin out there, prepared to lift the veil on the next global flashpoint. This time, though, I’m not sure CNN would pick up her call.

“A Private War” opens Friday in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, and Nov. 16 in Palm Beach County.