“ A Private War ”

The philosopher Albert Camus once wrote that “Journalism can never be silent: that is its greatest virtue and its greatest fault. It must speak, and speak immediately, while the echoes of wonder, the claims of triumph, and the signs of horror are still in the air.” 

The bio-pic “A Private War” introduces most of us to Marie Colvin, an American war correspondent who wrote for London’s “The Sunday Times” and ultimately lost her life in Syria. There is evidence that she was targeted by the Assad regime, but “ A Private War” is more of a character study then a dramatic thriller, though it has harrowingly frightening  war scenes.

Rosamund Pike carries the film. She is always on the screen. Her husky voice letting us know she believes in her mission to bear witness to the suffering of civilians in war ravaged places, especially the women and the children. Yale educated, Colvin covered conflicts all over the world for twenty-seven years in places as diverse as Lebanon, Sierra Leone, Iraq, Zimbabwe, Chechnya, and  Sri Lanka.  She lost her left eye while reporting on the battlefield in East Timor. Feisty, yet suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome and alcoholism, Colvin is surrounded by friends, ex-husbands, and loyal colleagues. Nikki-Anika Bird is a natural at playing the no-nonsence, Rita, while Jaime Dornan is more leaden in his admiration of Marie. Stanley Tucci captures the more wanton edges of fame and opportunity. 

Director Matthew Heineman makes sure that “suffering is part of the record”, and the film is exhausting in both the personal and in the national tolls. At fifty-six, Colvin’s flak-jacket is still in use. She is disfigured, British Correspondent of the Year, and suffering from nightmares. One of my favorite scenes is when she lies to a border guard that she is a nurse. She uses her health gym card and points to the word “health” to parlay her way closer to the action. More tender scenes like when Marie comments that during war “ the fragility of the human body never leaves you,” are well-placed.

The film written by Arash Amel, sticks to its premise that journalists are truth-seekers who care, and through their writing and with photo-journalists as partners, they work to make us care. Colvin was driven in her belief that truth-telling journalists could save lives. Grim and provocative, she made her mark. She was addicted to war zones. A favorite line is “ Don’t be English-be honest. Get me back in the field.”

Amel’s flashback use is jumpy, but I can’t see chronology working as well either. Homs, Syria 2012 does not flow easily into London, 2001. Along the way, we see her interviews with Muammar Gaddafi after U.S. planes bomb Tripoli. We see Colvin’s toughness and her charm. The film’s title is taken from a Vanity Fair article written by Marie Brenner, “MC’s Private War”. It is a good one, and I am glad it was used. 

A new book by Linsey Hilsum, “In Extremis: The Life and Death of War Correspobdent Marie Colvin” summons up other similar insights. I will add this biography to my collection of female journalists living abroad and reporting their stores and their truths. Suzy Hansen’s “Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World” ( 2017) and Deborah Campbell’s “ A Disappearance In Damascus” ( 2016) are well-worth reading in the spirit of Marie Colvin. And, who knows, maybe their films will follow.