It is truly surprising how little the connection between journalism and war has been covered in cinema. There are some previous examples, like The Killing Fields and Full Metal Jacket, but they’re rare. Often, war journalism/correspondence is “relegated” to the realm of documentary (The Hornet’s Nest being a good example of such). In the minds of some, journalists are ‘background’ figures. What makes A Private War intriguing is that ‘background figure’ and its subject, journalist Marie Colvin, have probably never been used in the same sentence before now. But for however fascinating Colvin may be, it makes the results of the film all the more frustrating.
A Private War is part reflection on the role of journalism and journalists in war-torn areas and character study. Director Matthew Heineman‘s film, based on Marie Brenner‘s Vanity Fair article “Marie Colvin’s Private War,” tracks the hard drinking and smoking Colvin (Rosamund Pike) through every major conflict she covered, from Sri Lanka (where she lost her right eye) to Homs, Syria.
The film is at its strongest when it’s displaying Colvin’s ideals. The role of a war correspondent is to knowingly put your life in harm’s way in return for a story. But not just any story, a report that records history, that uncovers atrocities, that gives voice to the voiceless, that make those living in luxury question their material miracles. Heineman, whose previous work includes City of Ghosts, exposes those underpinnings of the “First World’s” guilty subconscious. He intersperses scenes of Galas and wealthy parties with the realities of war-torn countries. Colvin, for better or for worse, acts as a carrier of those internal conflicts.
She’s never fully comfortable at home. Whenever she decides to live a quiet life, her editor Sean Ryan (Tom Hollander) convinces her to return (which doesn’t require much persuading). One might mistake this impulse as an addiction, but it’s not. Colvin, along with her photographer Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan), spend the film finding mass graves and visiting children’s hospitals filled with the dead and dying. Many of these scenes are bursting visual shells and the emotional bell tolls of the film, which only become more heartbreaking as each conflict depicted rings in greater destructive. Colvin returns to war because it’s her moral duty, even if it means leaving a man who cares for her, Tony Shaw (Stanley Tucci), behind.
Nevertheless, A Private War is at its weakest when it’s examining Colvin. While many have praised Pike’s portrayal of the famed journalist, this will be a dissent. Sometimes, showy and intense are confused with great. “Sometimes don’t go as far as you can go…stay well within yourself,” Al Pacino, recounting Lee Strasberg, once said on Inside the Actor’s Studio. Pike goes as far as she can go, but she’s not emoting anything that’s emotionally interesting.
Nothing that comes from Pike tells us anything about Colvin. That’s mostly because screenwriter Arash Amel‘s screenplay lacks nuance. We never see Colvin in a state where she’s not an emotional trainwreck. It’s understandable that the film is attempting to show us this brave PTSD-afflicted woman’s personal troubles through a constant barrage of traumatic experiences, but we can still learn something about her in the non-traumatic as well. The ultimate and unfortunate result, here, is that we learn nothing about her at all.
Marie Colvin was an amazing woman and journalist, but A Private War, in its haste to be emotionally raw, lacks the script to make a war with two sides. Instead, we’re only given one side of its subject. And try as Pike may, her performance is not only out of place in the film, when we see Colvin speaking during the credits, it’s out of place with her as well.