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'A Private War' Review: A Tribute to heroic war correspondent Marie Colvin

A Private War

Director Matthew Heineman, who had formerly produced and directed only documentaries, mainly on politically significant topics, takes on his first feature film in this overview of the career of Marie Colvin (1956-2012), largely based on the Vanity Fair article ‘Marie Colvin’s Private War,’ published soon after her death. Colvin was American, but best known for her work for the Sunday Times, beginning in 1985, which took her to some of the most dangerous war zones on earth; it is this stage of her career that is dealt with in the film. Her extreme, some would say reckless, courage and professional boldness resulted in astonishing new coverage in hard-to-access regions and won her multiple awards from the Foreign Press Association and the International Women’s Media Foundation, as well as the British Press Award for Foreign Reporter of the Year in three separate years. Colvin specialised in war correspondents in the Middle East.

The film begins in 2001, with Marie Colvin (Rosamund Pike) attempting to reconcile with her ex-husband. It is established at the outset that Colvin’s near-obsessive dedication to her work has affected her life, possibly breaking up her marriage – but little time is spent exploring the personal side of things. Colvin is sent by the Sunday Times to Sri Lanka to cover the ongoing civil war, where she is embedded in a military unit close to the front lines. The camera work here captures the perilous, chaotic situation, one in which Colvin completely comes to life, determined to salvage the details of the scene and its significance, and transmit it to readers at home. Other concerns clearly take second place to her: when she is injured by a grenade and awakens in the hospital, having lost an eye, she doggedly continues to prepare her report from her hospital bed. It is this injury that left her with the black eye patch that became her distinguishing feature.

Colvin is clearly at her best and most intense while working; scenes that take place at home between assignments express the sense of idleness she experienced, and make use of her time at home, at journalists’ gatherings, and in her newspaper’s office to sketch in Colvin’s character more completely. Apart from being intensely driven, she has strong views about the purpose of journalism. Colvin is shown having a brief, friendly dispute with a younger journalist, who questions Colvin’s lack of concern for technical details. Colvin feels that what is truly important, at least in war coverage, are the larger truths of human impact. War correspondence is, she says, “a rough draft of history,” which reveals the source of evil or aggression in a way most people can understand and sympathise with. Her approach is illustrated again and again in the way she chooses to deal with battle scenes, by telling the stories of individuals who have been affected by the war, rather than transmitting only the official version of events. In so doing, as the film gradually makes clear, she often reaches the truth which other journalists have missed.

While preparing to report from the war zone near Fallujah, Colvin impulsively invites a photographer, Paul Conroy (Jamie Dorner) to accompany her and supply the on-site photography for her stories. Conroy thereafter fulfils several functions as a character: he is Colvin’s sidekick and professional admirer; he acts as her eyes for the audience, his photography illustrating and emphasising the aspects of the event Colvin is trying to relay; he is the common man, observing Colvin’s work, expressing horror at her lack of caution and making ineffectual efforts to keep her safe; and ultimately, he acts as her posthumous witness.

The film covers Colvin’s struggles with PTSD, following the witnessing of particularly gruesome wartime incidents including the bombing of civilians and the excavation of a mass grave, along with her own shooting. She initially brushes off her condition, but is finally able to turn to her photography and friend, Paul Conroy, for help, and accepts treatment. While recovering, however, she is still impatient to be sent back to work, and eventually, her editor grants her a new assignment. From horrific scenes of civilian bombings and dead children, a voice-over from Colvin muses that her real struggle is maintaining faith in humanity, so that she can feel certain they will care about what she reports.

The film manages to deal with what might have become interchangeable scenes of violence and mayhem, without having them blend together, by focusing on what Colvin might have seen as points of interest, her focus on individuals involved in the discord. In Libya, we see her interviews with some of Gaddafi’s captured soldiers, providing hints of the near-insane brutality of his regime, from civilian bombings to ordering mass rape of female opposition members, in order to set up the tension of Colvin’s groundbreaking, one-on-one interview with Gaddafi himself. She is daringly straightforward in speaking with Gaddafi; another voice-over explains her reasoning: “we’ve failed mankind if we don’t reveal the horrors others are trying to conceal.” Colvin’s impact on journalism is made clear without verbal explanations: she once again focuses on the ordinary victims of the conflict, and makes the Libyan story about war crimes rather than about politics. She even covers Gaddafi’s death primarily from the perspective of the people who opposed and overthrew him, their celebration of his death, and the effect on their lives.

Colvin’s demise is led up to indirectly, with subtle foreshadowing. She continues to suffer from nightmares of the many horrors she has witnessed, but remains dedicated to her work. However, the possibility of death remains at the back of her mind, as it must for someone who works in constant danger. Sometimes her offhand attitude to her own safety is highlighted. When a colleague remarks jokingly on her choice of lingerie – Colvin wears purely functional clothing in the field, but with uncharacteristically pretty and expensive undergarments – she jokes that when her corpse is pulled from a trench, she wants people to be impressed. She finds herself caught between the impulse to work and to escape from the dangers and extreme stress of war correspondence.

Marie Colvin’s dedication to her work, her gruff but genuine empathy with those suffering in wartime, is beautifully portrayed in the film’s final act, which shows Colvin’s last assignment covering the siege at Homs, Syria, which she approached secretly by motorcycle despite foreign journalists being barred from the area. She provided coverage of the suffering of civilians trapped in abandoned buildings, but delayed her departure in order to provide live footage and live interviews with media, causing something of a stir by bluntly stating what her evidence had made clear: that official descriptions of the situation were a lie, that the government, not unknown ‘terrorists,’ was purposely attacking civilians. Some of the actual original broadcast by American news station CNN is used for the scene, to excellent effect. Having transmitted images of the wounded and starving, Colvin finally agreed to be evacuated, but too late.

The film makes some difficult choices: much of Marie Colvin’s personal life is glossed over or omitted, allowing her work to stand alone. The script avoids using either PTSD and physical injuries, or personal tragedies, to round out the story or the character. As a result, some may find the film, and Colvin herself, a little one-dimensional and devoid of interest. However, her tough, unique personality comes across clearly enough between the lines; and the decision to make her reporting the real story seems sound, given that her life revolved around it. It is a story that is especially valuable when the very concept of honest journalism is often under attack. Rosamund Pike does excellent work conveying Colvin’s courage, her resolute and sometimes foolish perseverance, her private struggles, and her influence on international reporting. The film is an inspiring tribute to a significant figure in journalism.

For further viewing…

Girls of the Sun, a 2018 drama by French director Eva Husson, tells the story of an all-female Kurdish battalion. A central character, journalist Mathilde, is directly based on Marie Colvin.

Colvin is featured in a 2005 documentary, Bearing Witness, which covers five women reporters working in Iraq covering the Gulf War.