Movie Review: Psychological insight into the life of an American war journalist

Drama biopic

A Private War (M18)

110 minutes/Now showing (Jan31)/3.5 stars

The story: Journalist Marie Colvin (Rosamund Pike) is in Homs, Syria, in 2012, reporting from a shelled building on the attacks by government forces on rebels. The story flashes back to earlier in her life, to the incident in the Sri Lankan civil war that cost her her left eye. Her editor at The Sunday Times in London, Sean Ryan (Tom Hollander) is troubled by her lack of concern for safety. She meets freelance photographer Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan) during the coalition invasion of Iraq in 2003 and they become friends who risk their lives in conflict zones across the world.

This biopic of the American journalist Colvin (Pike), as befits a story about a writer who lived to expose the effects of war on civilians, is a portrait that does not seek to flatter its subject.

Colvin emerges as a person shaped by her damage as much as her ambition.

Director Matthew Heinemann comes from the world of documentary, having made two acclaimed works, Cartel Land (2015), about the fight against Mexican drug gangs, and City Of Ghosts (2017), about citizen-journalists risking everything to report from Syrian zones controlled by the Islamic State.

Unlike other film-makers who move from reporting to re-enactment – Paul Greengrass (the biopic Captain Phillips, 2013; the 9/11 hijacking account United 93, 2006) comes to mind – Heinemann does not strive for realism driven by cinema-verite camera moves or action-movie arcs.

Instead, he opts for psychological insight. That is achieved through episodic flashbacks illustrating key moments in Colvin’s life which adhere admirably to the “show, don’t tell” dictum of storytelling.

The scenes reveal, without indulging in war porn or gratuitous gore, her altruistic impulse to show the world the suffering that women and children endure when men go to war. It is an impulse not lessened by injury – to her body, and more significantly, to her mind. For Colvin, the intensity of the war experience, as films like The Hurt Locker (2008) say, alters body chemistry in ways that make civilian life feel trite and meaningless, which fosters the desire for risk, creating a vicious circle.

Pike’s portrayal of the fierce but traumatised Colvin is superb, but the film is at its weakest showing Colvin outside of the war zone. When she is in the newsroom arguing with her boss or pursuing a love life, the scenes feel shallow and not as fully realised as those set in Syria or Iraq. These are the places where Pike’s Colvin, and therefore the film, feel most at home.

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