You can tell when we’re properly into Awards Season because along comes a film with an interesting-sounding premise for a biopic to build off of, only to find out that the finished product is prime, uncut, Grade-A Oscar Bait of the purest form. You know exactly the kind. A ‘Based on a True Story’, hot-button issue that (hopefully if you’re one of the producers) either is still or has only become more relevant in the time since the film went into production, helmed by either a relatively-anonymous journeyman or a somewhat respected foreign/documentary director making a big jump over to narrative filmmaking, is entirely competent but unspectacular in its construction and completely empty on a thematic level, but has its star (usually a long-serving member of the profession in their 30s/40s who’s overdue for recognition) solidly delivering a few big grandstanding speeches so we critics exit the movie going “It’s alright, but [x] was brilliant.”
The major difference between this kind of Oscar Bait and the Big-Time Oscar Bait is that it won’t actually win anything huge, maybe Adapted Screenplay or a Supporting trophy, but it will hog the nominations like parents at a holiday resort buffet and everyone will respond with a resounding, “Really? That film?” because they’d completely forgotten having seen it as soon as they stepped out of the screening. It’s the difference between, to use 2016 examples, La La Land and Lion. La La was designed to win awards, Lion was designed to win nominations. 2018’s entry in the all-or-nothing sweepstakes to become a hard Jeopardy! question five years from now is A Private War, this year’s Mayor of London Gala here at the Festival – fittingly, the past two years’ have been Call Me By Your Name and the deservedly-forgotten Their Finest, so that’s a good 50/50 pedigree for Private War to be operating in.
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Let’s run down that checklist, shall we? ‘Based on a True Story’? Well, it’s based on the life of famous war correspondent Marie Colvin, focussing on her exploits in the 21st Century from the Sri Lanka journey that cost her an eye up to the Syria excursion that tragically cost her her life in 2012. ‘Hot-button issue’? A Private War trumpets the need for dedicated, hungry journalists who go where others fear to tread in search of stories that need reporting no matter how dangerous the consequences, and does this through Marie and her editor (Tom Hollander classing up the joint) taking turns to monologue that fact to each other lke a Simpsons gag that’s gotten out of hand. ‘Relatively-anonymous journeyman or respected foreign/documentary director’? That would be Matthew Heineman, Oscar-winning director of Cartel Land and City of Ghosts making his narrative debut and he’s… fine, I guess?
‘Entirely competent but unspectacular in its construction and completely empty on a thematic level’? Oh, that’s a big tick! A Private War is an ok and easy watch, but it is also vapid and utterly empty. The film’s decision to cover 11 whole years of Colvin’s life, splitting between her tours on the frontlines of wars in places like Iraq and Libya, and her struggles back home with a PTSD she refuses to treat and the alcoholism she slumps into to numb the pain, in barely 100 minutes, is obviously a ludicrous one that cripples the film fatally. The result moves with pace, yeah, but it doesn’t get to meaningfully explore Marie in any way – not with her PTSD, not with her addicted co-dependent relationship to putting herself and others, like her photographer Paul Conroy (a Jamie Dornan I honestly didn’t recognise yet still left absolutely zero impression on me), in danger in search of a scoop – or say anything even remotely deep about war or journalism (‘Bad‘ and ‘Good‘ respectively are the best we get). Meaningful criticisms of Marie are almost non-existent; examinations of the actual impact of the journalism she risks her life to perform go staunchly unexplored (although we do get two Journalist of the Year awards scenes), so the film is completely shallow.
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‘Quality star performance we can single out in a desperate attempt to pump up the word count to more than that of an average Letterboxd review’? That would be Rosamund Pike playing Marie herself in a blatant attempt to make the pickier of us pretend she was nominated for Gone Girl instead of this when she’s finally able to add ‘Oscar-nominated’ to her star billing. She is pretty good, mind, given the material, getting Marie’s voice and mannerisms down scarily-well (as the obligatory pre-credits archive footage of the real Marie demonstrates), and of course she’s good enough at selling grand speeches in a way that can stir even the most jaded of critical hearts. Funny thing though, is that when the screenplay, penned by Aresh Amel of Grace of Monaco (which explains a lot), gets broader in terms of material – including montages cutting between Marie having sex and frustratingly writing her latest article semi-naked – Pike actually gets worse. She’s an actress who rises or sinks to the level of the material she’s given (hence her disappointing turn in A United Kingdom a few years back), so the louder, dumber moments of this screenplay come off even worse thanks to Pike meeting the material at its level.
Meanwhile, the few times A Private War does truly work are when it focusses on either the nitty-gritty of Marie’s attempts to get a story (like bluffing her way through an Iraqi checkpoint by using her gym membership card as proof she’s an aid worker) or when civilians are tearfully telling her their own stories. Irony abounds however, because the second of those actually pushes Pike into the background, forcing her to react to things and say stock lines like “I want to tell your story.” Nevertheless, these brief sequences are the only times that A Private War becomes truly engaging and they’re over just as they begin because we have to jetset to another war-torn nation or waste Stanley Tucci as a barely-there love interest.
But, ultimately, A Private War is just ‘eh’, which is the biggest requirement for this strain of Oscar Bait. Despite its infrequent moments of unintentionally hilarious dialogue or scenes that are the hallmark of Oscar Bait parodies the world over – you had better believe Marie gets a big ‘summing up’ speech at the movie’s end which she dictates whilst staring off into the middle-distance, and which literally every major character is also watching her make at the exact same time, despite being located thousands of miles and multiple timezones away from each other, whilst also staring off into the exact same middle distance – it’s just too mediocre to work up strong feelings about. I watched it, it leeched 105 minutes of my life from me, I didn’t really care, and Pike was pretty good at points. I’m honestly quite shocked I managed to get this many words out of something so immediately disposable, but even then I’ve been talking more about the film as Oscar Bait than on its own qualities, which I think is really telling.