'A Private War' Brilliantly Recalls a True Hero, War Correspondent Marie Colvin

Roseman Pike as Marie Colvin in A Private War (2018) (© Aviron Pictures / source: IMDB)

Documentarian Matthew Heineman's debut feature is an inspiring tribute to war correspondent Marie Colvin, who dedicated her life to documenting the human cost of war.

A Private War
Matthew Heineman

Aviron Pictures

16 Nov 18 (US)


Every bankrolled pundit who has ever complained about "fake news" needs to watch A Private War. Journalist Marie Colvin went to the war zones that would make these weekend warriors cower in the back seat of their daddy's new Mercedes. She was also a fascinating emotional paradox. Director Matthew Heineman, thanks to a fearless performance from Rosamund Pike, captures the nuances of Colvin amidst the constant danger of her field reporting. Unrelenting, passionate, and churning with humanity, A Private War is a film befitting its remarkable heroine.

Colvin was one of the most respected reporters in the world during her tenure at The Sunday Times in London. Three times she won the coveted 'Foreign Reporter of the Year' award, and was named 'Journalist of the Year' in 2000. From 1985 until her tragic death in Homs, Syria in 2012, Colvin reported from some of the hottest war zones on the planet. Her reports were a testimony for the faceless, voiceless civilians lost in the political gamesmanship of warfare. Each time Colvin headed into the field and put pen to paper, death was a realistic possibility.

(© Aviron Pictures / source: IMDB)

Yet, Colvin wasn't a machine. She suffered the same doubts and fears that any mortal would suffer under such extreme conditions. Director Matthew Heineman ( City of Ghosts ,2017, Cartel Land, 2015) doesn't shy away from her imperfections and insecurities, but he never uses them as cheap dramatic devices, either. Working from a Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner, "Marie Colvin's Private War", Heineman's roots as a documentarian (this is his first feature film) help him stay focused on the real story; Colvin's ability to overcome her fears and show the world the "human cost" of war.

"You'll never get to where you're going if you acknowledge fear," Colvin narrates over footage of a war-torn landscape. What was once a city is now only rubble; what used to be lives are now statistics. Heineman's re-creations of battlefield peril are first rate, with whizzing bullets and fiery explosions providing a poisonous taste of Colvin's daily life. The most terrifying moments, ironically, are when everything grows quiet. As Colvin and her trusted photographer Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan) look out over a sleeping Iraqi cityscape, the faraway rumble of explosions make even this peaceful respite feel like a trap.

Rosamund Pike as Marie Colvin, Jamie Dornan as Paul Conroy (© Aviron Pictures / source: IMDB)

Heineman also gives us a glimpse into the battleground of big-time journalism. Colvin's boss (Tom Hollander as The Sunday Times foreign chief, 'Sean Ryan') is constantly riding the line between concern for his correspondent and the desperate need to fill a 24-hour news cycle. Questioning Colvin's mental stability, he sends a young reporter (Faye Marsay as 'Kate') to surreptitiously back-up Colvin on her assignment to interview Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. It's a brutal reminder to the aging reporter that despite her accolades, there's always someone younger to take her place.

Mostly, A Private War chronicles the soul-crushing price Colvin paid for her dangerous calling. Divorced multiple times and left childless by two miscarriages, Colvin's only reliable confidantes are alcohol and cigarettes. Her nightmarish visions aren't relegated to sleep. Even something as innocuous as a flashing light or slamming door plunges her into a battlefield frenzy; re-living the close escapes and recalling the faces of the dead. After losing an eye to grenade shrapnel, she looks perfectly natural sporting a black eyepatch. Colvin probably reasoned that an eye was the least she could give for such a good story.

(© Aviron Pictures / source: IMDB)

"You've seen more war than most soldiers," Paul observes of Colvin, and Heineman is determined to re-create those battlefields as starkly as possible. Sweeping desserts and rubble… so much rubble… and the tight corridors provide egress from one disaster amongst the debris from one zone to the next. Everything is presented with the cold clarity of some demented nature documentary. These indifferent battlefields underscore the limitless depth of Colvin's compassion. The tears she sheds for the dead children and wailing mothers are real. She witnesses the carnage so you don't have to.

As Colvin, Rosamund Pike delivers a brilliant performance, simultaneously exuding obsession and vulnerability, like competing viruses within her frail frame. She stares down rifle after rifle with the steely resolve of a riverboat gambler. When a blockade of Iraqi soldiers stops her jeep, Colvin brazenly produces her health insurance card as proof that she's a medical aid worker. She is absolutely fearless, imbued with the arrogance that comes from cheating death so many times. And yet Pike's performance never feels puffed up or mythologized. She could so easily be broken, but she refuses to give injustice that kind of power over her.

(© Aviron Pictures / source: IMDB)

Ideally, A Private War would spend more time with the victims that Colvin is fighting to protect. There are gut-wrenching scenes of young mothers forced to feed their babies sugar water because stress has left them unable to nurse, but these moments can feel manipulative in such small doses. Colvin's personal life, too, feels truncated. A string of ex-husbands and lovers, ill-equipped to understand the rigors of her job, fight for the emotional table scraps. Not surprisingly, it's Paul, her closest link to the battlefield, who eventually elicits a heartbreaking confession of her inner turmoil.

Still, A Private War isn't noteworthy because it mythologizes a perfect hero; it's noteworthy because it demonstrates that compassion is not a weakness. Caring deeply about others can be a source of remarkable strength, even in the face of unimaginable callousness and suffering. To act in spite of our fears is the only way to defeat fear mongering. Marie Colvin dedicated her life to ensuring that each death she witnessed had meaning, and the story was told.





Political Cartoonist Art Young Was an Aficionado of all Things Infernal

Fantagraphics' new edition of Inferno takes Art Young's original Depression-era critique to the Trump Whitehouse -- and then drags it all to Hell.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

OK Go's Emotional New Ballad, "All Together Now", Inspired by Singer's Bout with COVID-19

Damian Kulash, lead singer for OK Go discusses his recent bout with COVID-19, how it impacted his family, and the band's latest pop delight, "All Together Now", as part of our Love in the Time of Coronavirus series.


The Rules Don't Apply to These Nonconformist Novelists

Ian Haydn Smith's succinct biographies in Cult Writers: 50 Nonconformist Novelists You Need to Know entice even seasoned bibliophiles.


Siren Songs' Meredith Kaye Clark and Jenn Grinels Debut As a Folk Duo (album stream + interview)

Best friends and longtime musical collaborators Meredith Kaye Clark and Jenn Grinels team up as Siren Songs for the uplifting folk of their eponymous LP.


Buzzcocks' 1993 Comeback 'Trade Test Transmissions' Showed Punk's Great Survivors' Consistency

PopMatters' appraisal of Buzzcocks continues with the band's proper comeback LP, Trade Test Transmissions, now reissued on Cherry Red Records' new box-set, Sell You Everything.


Archie Shepp, Raw Poetic, and Damu the Fudgemunk Enlighten and Enliven with 'Ocean Bridges'

Ocean Bridges is proof that genre crossovers can sound organic, and that the term "crossover" doesn't have to come loaded with gimmicky connotations. Maybe we're headed for a world in which genres are so fluid that the term is dropped altogether from the cultural lexicon.


Claude McKay's 'Romance in Marseille' Is Ahead of Its Time

Claude McKay's Romance in Marseille -- only recently published -- pushes boundaries on sexuality, disability, identity -- all in gorgeous poetic prose.


Christine Ott Brings the Ondes Martenot to New Heights with the Mesmerizing 'Chimères'

France's Christine Ott, known for her work as an orchestral musician and film composer, has created a unique new solo album, Chimères, that spotlights an obscure instrument.


Man Alive! Is a Continued Display of the Grimy-Yet-Refined Magnetism of King Krule

Following The OOZ and its accolades, King Krule crafts a similarly hazy gem with Man Alive! that digs into his distinct aesthetic rather than forges new ground.


The Kinks and Their Bad-Mannered English Decency

Mark Doyles biography of the Kinks might complement a seminar in British culture. Its tone and research prove its intent to articulate social critique through music for the masses.


ONO Confronts American Racial Oppression with the Incendiary 'Red Summer'

Decades after their initial formation, legendary experimentalists ONO have made an album that's topical, vital, uncomfortable, and cathartic. Red Summer is an essential documentation of the ugliness and oppression of the United States.


Silent Women Filmmakers No Longer So Silent: Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers

The works of silent filmmakers Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers were at risk of being forever lost. Kino Lorber offers their works on Blu-Ray. Three cheers for film historians and film restoration.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.