To judge by Matthew Heineman’s occasionally clumsy but thoroughly harrowing biopic, renowned war reporter Marie Colvin was only afraid of two things: Dying young, and growing old. It’s a dilemma that would bind the American ex-pat to her job until the day she lost her life while covering the Syrian Civil War. For “Cartel Land” director Heineman — a notable documentary filmmaker whose recent “City of Ghosts” chronicled the ongoing atrocities committed against the people of Raqqa — Colvin’s plight offers a natural way in to the world of narrative storytelling (and the excuse to restage a half-dozen of the bloodiest modern conflicts that predated his career).
But there’s nothing opportunistic about “A Private War.” Watching the film scramble towards its inevitable conclusion, one gets the sense that Heineman sees Colvin as a kindred spirit. And while even he struggles to make sense of how she lived — or to fully justify how she died — Heineman finds something real in the rubble. In his own way, and with the invaluable help of a tremendous lead performance from Rosamund Pike, he’s even able to continue the work that Colvin left behind.
Too conventionally framed for such a remarkable heroine, “A Private War” begins at the end, in the ruined city of Homs, where a drone looks down at the toppled buildings like a god who can no longer recognize their creation. From there, the film jumps back in time, hopping between conflict zones and the relative calm of London, where Colvin works for the Sunday Times, and reckons with all the fear she manages to postpone in the field. Pike, a remarkable actress who’s still just beginning to explore the depths she revealed in “Gone Girl,” inhabits Colvin like an exhausted tornado who can’t survive in sunny weather.
“We should get married again,” Colvin tells her ex-husband in one of the film’s earliest scenes, drawn to any kind of disaster she can find. She’s addicted to them. And while there are any number of movies about people (usually soldiers) who only feel at peace when they’re in the middle of a war, the brilliance of Pike’s performance is found in her unwavering contempt for the violence that compels her.
For Colvin, there’s nothing cool about civil unrest or genocide; she hates it the same way that an alcoholic might resent every one of the drinks they need. You can hear that bitterness in her voice, a low grumble that makes it sound as though her throat has been hit by an enemy mortar (an interview clip towards the end of the movie confirms that Pike has perfectly captured what Colvin sounded like).
Written by Arash Amel (“The Titan”), and based on a Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner, “A Private War” is as restless and peripatetic as its heroine. The film boomerangs between chaos and civilization so casually that the two bleed together. That feeling only grows more pronounced — both for Colvin, and for us — after she loses in an eye during an explosion in Sri Lanka, the blast depriving her of the depth perception that might allow someone to measure the distance between journalism and suicide.
One minute, Colvin is in Iraq, digging up a mass grave and forging a bond with the freelance photographer who became one of her best friends (a bearded, understated Jamie Dornan brings a quiet dignity to the role of Paul Conroy). The next, she’s back in Britain, drinking herself into a stupor at awards galas and worrying the well-intentioned editor (Tom Hollander) who reaps the benefits of her success. Abroad, she does stints in Afghanistan and Libya. Gaddafi has a crush on her. At home, she does stints in the office and rehab. A hedonistic American millionaire (Stanley Tucci, in a glorified cameo) is seduced by her eyepatch, and all the other scars that it suggests. Their few scenes together are surprisingly tender, disabusing us of the notion that Colvin is just an empty husk.
Sensual at times, and never sanctified, Pike refuses to let herself seem like the “smelly, exhausted pseudo-man” that Colvin dreaded becoming. Amel, Heineman, and Pike all refuse to reduce their subject to something fully understandable; she’s not just a tomboy with a hole in her heart, or a brave warrior angel who has the courage to bear witness to the horrors that the rest of the world would rather ignore. Yes, Colvin is tough. And yes, the virtue of her work is of profound historical importance. But “A Private War” resolves as such an effective memoir because even in its most clichéd moments — of which there are many — it resists easy psychoanalysis.
As the film’s title suggests, the defining battle of Colvin’s life was fought on her own. And while Heineman doesn’t hesitate to express the value of what Colvin accomplished, he refuses to conflate the ends with the means. It’s clear that she wants to write the rough draft of history — to “make people stop and care” about the world beyond their field of vision — but why she does this job and why she does this job are two very different things.
Returning to the ruins of Homs (which Heineman’s team has done a remarkably convincing job of re-creating on screen), the film’s visceral and heartstopping final sequences cement our reverence for Colvin, but also complicate our understanding of her mission. “I see these things,” she says about the horrors of war, “so you don’t have to.” But Heineman doesn’t take her at her word. He argues that Colvin sees these things because she can’t look away. And, by dint of making this movie, he implicitly argues that Colvin sees these things so that the rest of us will, too.
Aviron Pictures will release “A Private War” in theaters on Friday, November 2.