A PRIVATE WAR had its USA premiere the opening night of the Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF42) October 4, 2018. The screening was prior to Time Magazine having designated “The Guardians of Truth,” as its 2018 person of the year— and before the targeted killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Turkish Saudi Arabian embassy. Acclaimed documentarian Director Mathew Heineman’s supposed biopic focuses on the life, career and death of US born war correspondent for the London Sunday Times, Marie Colvin. Surprisingly, Heineman has chosen to re-tool his award winning considerable documentary skills to create this, his first narrative film. A PRIVATE WAR is many things, a Hollywood mirror biopic not being among them. Instead, this screen work is a gift of reality wrapped in art.
Marie Colvin was killed in Homs, Syria, in 2012— during the second year of the Syrian civil war. This war still continues at this writing and is key to the undeclared World War raging in the Middle East with players from multiple nations beyond the region. Dying along with Marie was the acclaimed French freelance photojournalist Rémi Ochlik. For nearly thirty years Colvin had covered the “Middle Eastern War beat.” Her reports uniquely defined the inhumanity of war while she herself role-modeled a hard boiled compassion, accuracy and truth. She focused on the rights of civilians trapped in the cross-fires of hell on earth. An autopsy conducted in Damascus by the Syrian government concluded Marie Colvin was killed by an “improvised explosive device filled with nails.” These are the facts but there is more to the film.
Heineman’s film begins with the image of a decimated house, in the demolished city of Homs where thousands and Colvin died. It is so haunting that the viewer should be forewarned that it will wrench you from your sleep months after the screening. You will scramble to play catch up. The film asks the viewer to choose… “What side are you on?” Weeks later you will try to understand the history of how the wars in Chechnya, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Iran Libya Sri Lanka, East Timor and Syria became part of the same war — the war were the most vulnerable, the noncombatants, are used as cannon fodder over near a century.
Photojournalist Paul Conroy was injured in the attack that took Marie and Remi. He survived to provide context to his colleagues’ final hours. Crazy with purpose, Colvin had used her satellite phone to speak—one last time—the truth of the devastation of the civilian population of Syria. Six years later, in 2018 a Syrian Forces defectors testimony was unsealed by a USA court. The document presented evidence that the forces of Assad, the president of Syria, locked into the slain Colvin’s phone transmission to target and kill her.
It is a visually gritty, granular polluted air Colvin breaths. Visually, A PRIVATE WAR ends with that same decimated ruin in Homs where it begins. So why is a film whose story begins and ends in the same place worth telling in yet another way? It is, after all, a story that has been told in documentary film, magazine articles and in books elsewhere. Importantly, much of the script is adapted from an interview by Marie Brenner with Marie in Vanity Fair magazine. That is-- the perspective of the film derives from the war journalist herself telling the world parts of her own story. Therein lay the value.
Screenwriter Arash Amel’s work was challenging because it is not from the perspective of an onlooker. We know what Colvin said —because she said it. But how do you show the vulnerability and sometimes confusion she felt? If the purpose of the film was to leave her feeling, not chronological data, the work has succeeded. Context takes a back seat to the main characters reflection of her times at a given moment.
“Biopic’ is a misnomer — A PRIVATE WAR is a memoir. You jump geography and timeframes. Strangers appear without announcement of names or titles — as they do in one’s own memory. If we can’t tell why the scene is there by Pikes performance — shame on us. The burden of Heineman’s complex film is absolutely carried by the power of Academy Award® nominee Rosamund Pike’s portrayal of Marie Colvin. Pike channels Kate Hepburn, in a role the silver screen actress never played. The performance is no less astounding for the uncanny likeness to miles of available film and sound footage of the slain reporter. Heineman allows Pike to express the pain and suffering in Colvin’s aging battered body, in her womanhood rattled love, and journalistic commitment to truth.
But all is not dour. Pike’s Colvin masterfully conveys the physical comedy of facial expression as an irascibility when the character jokes. This heightens the contrast when actor also brings an exquisite portrayal of a body and mind racked with tragedy. The accuracy of the performance even includes the slight imbalance of gait in the mono-optic, eye patch wearing Colvin—whose distant traumatic brain injury had resulted in a lost dominant eye. By allowing Pike to dive deeply into the body of the woman she portrays, Heineman delivers the character’s inner voice. You can’t write or tell this stuff in words.
A PRIVATE WAR is not a film for the faint, or even exhausted of heart. The actor’s task was to flip the character’s insides to the outside. Even laughing, Pike’s Colvin is always only a tear drop away from being left naked and exposed to the devastations of war, post traumatic stress, and survivor guilt. The audience receives the same, as if from a ricocheting bullet.
For more, see Part II of A PRIVATE WAR: Bioethics meets Guardians of Truth at http://www.bioethicsscreenreflections.com