‘A Private War’ gives gritty glimpse into wars we see but never experience

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Grade: 3.5/5.0

There’s nothing quite like an Oscar-bait film to signal the beginning of awards season. When the majors and the indies release their most promising critical darlings after parading them around festivals, you know the shiny golden statues are just around the corner, ready to be presented. With a strong female lead, a plot based on a true story and Oscar-nominated actors, “A Private War” features a classic trifecta almost guaranteed to get on the academy’s radar.

Based on the Vanity Fair article “Marie Colvin’s Private War,” the biographical film follows celebrated journalist and foreign affairs correspondent Marie Colvin on many of her daring trips to report on various foreign conflicts — ranging from her intrepid journalism in Sri Lanka that cost her an eye to her final correspondence in Homs, Syria, where she was killed during a siege. Directed by Matthew Heineman, the film benefits from Heineman’s documentary background, evident through the shaky-cam footage used during Colvin’s daring exploits.

The film wastes no time jumping into the action, the first few minutes recounting how Colvin lost an eye while fearlessly covering an underreported civil war in Sri Lanka. After establishing the background of her ocular appearance, the film jumps back and forth between her time abroad and the personal repercussions of her travel.

Yet as the events in her career are so vast, many are simply presented as traumatic flashbacks that Colvin experiences while home in England. Only the largest moments in her career — losing an eye in Sri Lanka, interviewing Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, sneaking into the Iraqi city of Fallujah to excavate a mass grave — are given official titles with a grisly foreshadowing countdown to her demise in Homs.

The biopic is less of a biographical insight into her life and more of a look into the last decade of her career. Directly examining her complex character through the lens of the horrific events she lived through is enough to create a visceral depiction of Colvin, yet the film insists on showing minute details of her personal life, such as her crumbling marriage with her husband and burgeoning romance with the fictional Tony Shaw, played by an underutilized Stanley Tucci. While these moments provide a window into her deteriorating mental health and descent into alcoholism, those aspects of her life are much better expressed in her conversations with photographer and colleague Paul Conroy (played by the Northern Irish Jamie Dornan, who tries to mimic Conroy’s Liverpool accent, to little success).

Gruff and tenacious, Colvin is a force to be reckoned with on screen, greatly dwarfing any noticeable characteristics of the film’s supporting characters. This is largely because of Pike’s commendable performance of the dauntless, disillusioned journalist — her hardened voice and impassive expressions give a perfect portrayal, so much so that when the film ends with an interview of the real Colvin, it is hard to tell who is imitating whom. Even more impressive is when Pike’s Colvin cracks her brusque facade and lets the horrors she’s experienced flood her psyche. She excels in portraying Colvin’s vulnerability, giving intimacy to a film that is largely dominated by death and destruction.

“A Private War” is just as much a commentary on the effects of combat as it is a glimpse into Colvin’s life. War and Colvin are intertwined. It is clear that she is most herself when on-site, unearthing the corruption and terror of the world. Never dipping into a “white savior complex” or “tragic femme fatale” mentality, the film manages to escape common biographical pitfalls by maintaining that Colvin is neither a saint nor a sinner. She is not a career woman with a failed marriage, and she is not a martyr for justice. She is simply a woman witnessing and reporting the terrible depths of humanity, a legacy that speaks for itself.

Contact Julie Lim at [email protected].