‘A Private War’ an Emotional Endurance Test

by Warren Cantrell on November 15, 2018

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Solid Rock Fist Up]

There are two kinds of war movies: the ones that focus on the action, and the ones that concern themselves with the destruction that follows from it. And while there are scores of the former type, there are far fewer of the latter: due in large part to the fact that the consequences of war don’t play well on film. One end of the genre is all about the juice, the action, the transposition of the audience into a hero proxy that is battling the forces of evil with courageous abandon. It is a far drearier journey when escaping into the world of collateral damage, however, and that is exactly what A Private War is concerned with both to its credit and detriment.

When the audience meets Marie Colvin (Rosamund Pike playing that real-life journalist), it’s 2001 and she is arguing with her editor about a story in Sri Lanka. There’s a civil war in full swing there, which makes the area no safer for journalists than for the soldiers fighting on the front lines. Dismissing all attempts to get her into a safer region for a tamer assignment, Colvin plows ahead and loses an eye for her trouble. This stubborn refusal to account for her own safety in the face of a boss who genuinely wants to keep her safe is a theme that A Private War goes back to again and again, and is the keel to the metaphorical ship that is Colvin.

Indeed, Colvin can’t seem to help herself when a conflict hits, and the film follows her as she reports on-the-ground in Iraq in 2003, Afghanistan in 2009, and Libya during the Arab Spring. By the time it gets to her work in Homs, Syria in 2012, the toll this work has taken on Colvin is apparent, as PTSD and alcoholism define her non-war zone existence. And while the narrative follows the conflicts that define each segment, the film is Colvin’s, and serves as something of a thesis statement on the importance of journalism during wartime, consequences be damned.

And there are consequences: Colvin’s eyepatch is a testament to that. Yet there’s more to it than just the physical aftereffects; just as any soldier might suffer from PTSD following active duty deployment, so too does Colvin, who like so many warriors throughout history is both brave as well as afraid. Indeed, true bravery is resilience in the face of fear (not the absence of it), and A Private War goes to great lengths to show that Colvin didn’t enjoy her most dangerous work yet did it nonetheless because it was important. The ugly carnage of war, its cruel indifference in the face of geopolitics and personal heroics informed Colvin’s work, and is a big part of the story that this film endeavors to tell.

And in this regard, A Private War is indeed successful. As an examination of a complicated real-life figure, it draws out several truths not just about Colvin, but wartime journalism and the nature of human conflict itself. Director Matthew Heineman draws on his documentary experience as a chronicler of war zones (see Cartel Land and City of Ghosts for more on this) to craft a story that is true to the work for which Colvin risked her life. Shots linger on the wounded, dead, dying, and grieving far longer than they need to so as to make their point, and even though this is a drama replete with actors and special effects, it is easy to forget that’s the case.

The performances are all top-tier as well, following from Pike’s work as Colvin which is nothing short of transformative. Aside from a basic resemblance, the deep pitch of her voice and her general bearing are spot-on and demonstrate just how thorough Pike’s preparation was. Jamie Dornan is also outstanding as real-life combat photographer Paul Conroy, balancing an ever-present fatigue alongside a steadfast loyalty to Colvin that never falters. Dornan has to do a lot of his work without dialogue, and it’s a credit to his turn as Conroy that the audience is never left with any doubt about his intentions when on-screen. Stanley Tucci and Tom Hollander round out the cast as Colvin’s lover and editor, respectively, and they likewise turn in stellar performances with the limited screen time they’re afforded.

Even so, that doesn’t make this movie all that fun to watch. The wailing lamentations of mothers and fathers atop the bodies of slain spouses and children echo throughout A Private War, and while true to the story and Colvin’s work, it can wear on a person’s emotional endurance. Which all seems to be the point, really. Colvin almost certainly would not have had it any other way, laser-focused as she was on revealing the human cost of war, and Heineman, with his background as a documentarian, seems no less committed to the cause.

Opening this week, A Private War details the human cost of conflict on those that engage in it, but also amongst those along the fringes. Whether that’s a reporter, a soldier, a doctor, or just some unlucky kid who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time matters little: everyone touched by war has a story worth telling. This seems to have been what Colvin’s life was building towards in the lead-up to her time in Syria, and if that is indeed the case, A Private War has done her justice.

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and The Playlist. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing.


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