I don’t know about you, but I have always found the process of watching the news to be a very dissociative one. Coming of age in the aftermath of things like 9/11, the majority of foreign reporting and correspondence has long been a deluge of tragic, horrifying scenes that feel a million miles away from my sofa. Because of this, it’s easy to forget that those scenes and stories are coming to us through the lenses and writings of unbelievable journalists, journalists like the late Marie Colvin.
A Private War tells the story of Marie Colvin (Rosamund Pike), the iconic American war reporter who became one of the most recognised and celebrated figures in her field through her long and storied career at The Sunday Times. Covering the grenade attack that claimed her left eye in Sri Lanka in 2001 to the bomb that claimed her life in Syria in 2012, the film weaves a tragic but gripping and powerful narrative of a woman struggling with her own personal demons whilst at the same time feeling compelled to travel to the far corners of the globe where even larger, history defining demons were at play.
The film does a really fantastic job of showing audiences just how unthinkable and insane the job of a war reporter is, how unfathomable it seems to someone outside of its electric bubble. We see Marie and her photographer Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan) actively making their way in to hell scapes from which every other being on the earth is desperately trying to escape, all for the integrity and desire of revealing horrors and injustices to the unknowing world. In the same way that First Man stripped away all the glamour of being an astronaut, A Private War strips any lingering ideas or notions of journalistic glamour, and it proves to be a visceral, devastating and sacrificial viewing experience. Most importantly of all, though, it is a picture and story that you can’t take your eyes off.
I can’t admit to having had much knowledge of Marie Colvin during her life time, but I certainly remember the event of her death at the siege of Homs, a sequence that is played out unflinchingly in the final third of the film. What I admire so much about A Private War is that it doesn’t neccesarily paint Colvin out to be some sort of higher being or moralistic super hero. We see her battle with issues of alcoholism, of inevitable post traumatic stress disorder and of the devastating addiction she develops to seeing the worst of humanity in the flesh. She makes mistakes, she puts her own life and other people’s lives at risk for the sake of chasing a story, and when that story routinely involves children being shot to death in front of her, one can only imagine the kind of toll it takes.
If you can’t seem to find me over the next few days, I’ll more than likely be out and about trying to find where Rosamund Pike’s Best Actress Oscar nomination went. I’m absolutely baffled by the Academy’s omission of what is clearly one of the best performances of the year. As far am I’m concerned only Olivia Colman and Glenn Close shone brighter this season, Pike’s portrayal of Marie Colvin is one that is going to last long in my memory. Having such a strong willed and special real life figure from which to draw is obviously a help, but Pike is absolutely captivating from start to finish. She doesn’t ask for your attention, she simply arrests it whether you want her to or not, it’s a real force of nature trick that that majority of actresses think they can do, but can’t. With something as outlandish a distinctive pirate style eyepatch and some fairly wild wigs to contend with, the performance could so easily have felt ‘costumey’, but Rosamund Pike produces the best work of her career here and it’s absolutely stunning.
The revolving cast of supporting players in Colvin’s tragedy all turn in solid performances. The likes of Stanley Tucci and Tom Hollander play small but vital roles in portraying the interwoven thread of Marie’s personal and professional life, but it is Jamie Dornan who is tasked with forming the most important on screen partnership with Pike. As Paul Conroy, Dornan’s character is the only one that experiences the same levels of horror and chaos, and whilst his acting doesn’t come close to the soaring levels of his scene partner, he proves to be an authentic and endearing companion.
Overall, A Private War is a gripping drama about a truly extraordinary woman, featuring an equally extraordinary leading performance. It is incredibly tough to watch at times, but is also has a delicate touch that makes the unfathomable, suddenly fathomable through the eyes of its characters. The film is warts and all, but it certainly feels like a fitting tribute to Marie Colvin. A permanent cinematic reminder not only of her own career and contribution, but of the conflicts and stories that she literally gave her life to preserve in print and image. I will be thinking about this for many weeks to come.