For a film about conflict, A Private War is remarkably apolitical, as well as an unapologetic tribute to its subject, war correspondent Marie Colvin, a legendary name in journalistic circles. The fact that she’s done justice is due in large part to Rosamund Pike, who is simply astounding, delivering what could be described as a career best performance.
Director Matthew Heineman is an odd but fitting choice to tell her story, having mostly directed highly acclaimed documentaries such as Cartel Land and City of Ghosts. But he has something in common with Colvin in that he’s equally praised for his fearlessness and his empathy which is why he is able to appreciate Colvin and strip her to her essentials to explore what drove her while knowing she will be in some sense unknowable, even to herself. There are also partially and full-on nude scenes (the word stripping is not just a metaphor) sans objectification, where Colvin’s body is allowed to simply be a body making A Private War truly remarkable both for what it does and doesn’t do.
The film doesn’t attempt to explain exactly what drives Colvin and people like her to continually go into war zones. Colvin was particularly driven to go where civilians were suffering the most, which generally meant the most dangerous. This eventually cost her an eye in Sri Lanka in 2001, where she was covering its civil war. The resulting eye patch she wore after became a kind of trademark as she continued to do the work she was known for, even filing a report from the bed she was hospitalized in after the incident.
Nor is Colvin allowed to become maudlin or defined by her divorce or lack of children. She and the movie acknowledges that Colvin was addicted to war, and this took a toll on her psyche and personal life but refused to allow that to be end message. Colvin’s goal was always to show truth of the human cost of conflict, regardless of the politics. A mass grave in Iraq is not used to decry the war there, it acknowledges and mourns the dead found there, all victims of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Her compassion also led her to call out the Syrian government when she was in Homs and witnessed the horrific results of the bombing on the civilians there. Colvin not only reported what she saw, she used called the Syrian government’s claims outright lies before it became fashionable, and called it the worst conflict she had ever seen, reminding us that over 500,000 civilians have died since Colvin made her report.
Nearly any other film would be guilty of lionizing it subject. Certainly that’s a danger given the nature of both the woman A Private War portrays and the issues it discusses. The only time it seems a bit too on the nose is in some of its dialogue, which can sometimes be a bit too pointed for its own good. Otherwise the film remains a touching tribute to Colvin and those journalists who risk their lives to bring the truth to the public in the hopes that people will actually care.