The dangers of embedded reporting are on full display in Matthew Heineman’s A Private War. In telling the story of journalist Marie Colvin, Henieman takes an unflinching at not only dangers of her job, but the atrocities taking place in Syria. Known for his hard hitting documentaries, Cartel Land and last years City of Ghosts, he takes that style into his first narrative feature. Directing from a script by Arash Amel, Henieman has crafted a harrowing but necessary film about the toll of war. And still, as much as it is about that, it is also a film about journalism, and the risk involved in getting people to care about what is really going on.
Rosemund Pike (Gone Girl) is a knockout as Colvin, an embedded war reporter for the Sunday Times in London. Colvin has been working in foreign lands for quite some time at the start of the film. Her editor, played by Tom Hollander, keeps an eye on Colvin, who is unpredictable, fearless and dedicated. Having a tough time sustaining relationships, she chooses to be right on the front lines with soldiers. Our first look at her tenacity is her insistence on going to Sri Lanka to cover a war there. Colvin so frequently asks what she, and more broader journalists as a whole, to make people care about these conflicts. As it turns out, her eye is ultimately the cost. Colvin, undeterred by her experiences losing an eye in Sri Lanka. In fact, Pike conveys her fearlessness in a mesmerizing scene where she records her voice about what she saw in Sri Lanka while lying in a hospital bed.
We are exposed to so many layers of Marie Colvin her story is that much more affecting. Though the focus is on her, it’s never lost on the viewer, or Henieman on the immense toll on all these journalists. Moreover, the life-risking proposition it is just to bring the world the truth. For Colvin, the story is her destructive personality. Fueled by alcohol, sex and chain smoking, Marie denies her PTSD, though she dreams of the same image every night. The films title very much reflects its real life inspiration. Colvin was fighting her own her to expose the truth. Even when they have video of children being bombed, despite the claims of Syria’s leader, it isn’t enough for her. There is always more, and despite the pleadings of her photographer.
Heineman does a spectacular job unfolding all the tension using what appear to be handheld camera shots to put you in the room with Colvin and her photographer Paul. Jamie Dornan (Fifty Shades of Grey) takes a turn into a dramatic role and he is really a strong point in the film. It’s the first we’ve seen of this from Dornan who’s understated performance gives the film that extra layer of depth. More than anything, Heineman makes A Private War feel like documentary with its heart-wrenching scenes inside a bombed out building. Colvin interviews mothers who can only feed their children sugar and water unable to nurse due to the stress. The movie is shot brilliantly by the great Robert Richardson and offers chilling sound design.
A Private War never lacks intensity and tells a deeply personal story without playing it safe. Colvin and all her flaws are what makes this film so deeply personal. It’s just the way Colvin would have wanted it. Though it seems like a movie that as far as awards go will get lost in the shuffle, it should be seen by everyone. It’s the best work Pike has done on film, and signals Matthew Henieman as a director to watch.