I’ve always been an admirer of Rosamund Pike. Let’s just say she has come a long way since Die Another Day! But as we are in the awards season period, it becomes difficult not to think about her contributions. Her career-defining role will always be Amy Dunne in Gone Girl – a Gillian Flynn and David Fincher masterclass on the dark and psychological expectations of women and the idealism of perfection. Hostiles and Entebbe are her other notable works, but in Matthew Heineman’s A Private War, it’s right up there as one of her best.
Playing The Sunday Times journalist Marie Colvin is one of those roles that’s tailor-made for Pike. As demonstrated in Gone Girl, her transforming commitment unlocks another layer of versatility that can be talked about in the same degree as we would talk about Christian Bale or Leonardo DiCaprio ‘going the distance’ in their roles for example. She’s barely recognisable as the haggard, psychologically tortured, chain-smoking, alcoholic, abrasive yet steely determined journalist. Her mannerisms and voice are spot-on accurate, and A Private War is just another visual statement of that trait.
Judging this solely on the film itself without incorporating the 2018 documentary Under the Wire (which is now on my watchlist), Heineman’s depiction also feels timely. Not just because of Hollywood’s slow awakening from its formulaic slumber to highlight more complex, diverse and nuanced female characters for the big screen (and Hollywood still has a long way to go in that respect), but also the journalistic landscape of war reporting, especially in this era where ‘fake news’ and political tribalism dominates the headlines. Therefore, A Private War becomes more than just a biopic, but more of a self-referential question to an ongoing and complex battlefield fought on two fronts – documenting the unreported and personal horrors of war and Marie’s committed compulsion to report it despite the psychological trauma and her eventual death.
It handles Colvin’s story as a dichotomy, celebrating the honesty, courageousness and dedication of her work in Sri Lanka, Libya and Syria but also the subsequent recklessness that it involved. As a film representation of ‘old school’ journalism, it shares notable company with Spielberg’s The Post, McCarthy’s Spotlight or Pakula’s All the President’s Men. Bearing in mind that A Private War is more of a character study than a hardline, investigative piece, the difference and probably most refreshing aspect about it is that the perspective is female.
The perils are up there on the screen, with the aggressive hostility and the indiscriminate nature war brings to the table. Colvin does come across as incredibly silly, downright scary to watch someone propel themselves in the face of danger knowing what that outcome would be. But there was never a moment where you question the utmost bravery she encompasses.
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That effectively serves Pike’s performance well which is honest and unapologetic without portraying Marie Colvin as a saint-like figure. It’s the complete performance by Pike, taking on Marie’s public abrasiveness towards her colleagues in pursuit of the issues that mattered most as summed up by her relenting nature to document the human experience of war. But A Private War aimed to present two sides of the raw equation.
There’s a brilliant passage where she acknowledges the dynamic predicaments of her life, all dictated by fear. It’s the desire of having kids, but after suffering two failed miscarriages fears it may never happen. It’s the fear of growing old but laced with a fear of dying young. It’s the fear of wanting what everyone else has in life but acknowledging that they’re meant for another purpose and can’t escape the hateful compulsion to face the frontline. It’s a sad reflection watching someone grasp their mortality, essentially making Marie Colvin’s tragic story empathetically compelling and it’s that re-enforced message that never leaves your mindset in determining the point of the film – there’s always a human cost to war.
There are times where the depiction is a little simplistic, especially arguing the case of Colvin’s life away from the frontline. The film often finds its supporting characters telling Marie she has a problem, comparing it to addiction as she ignores the consequent symptoms of PTSD. Her excessive lifestyle is her way running away from the excuses, almost denying its existence. However, Pike’s performance draws paralleled similarities with Amy Adams in Sharp Objects and even Nicole Kidman in Destroyer, characters who wear the pain on the sleeves, not because of some higher morality, gender expectation or for our benefit for entertainment, but illustrating how inseparable their relevant circumstances have become. At least it’s messy and ugly without judgement, even in dramatised form. Paying respects to her motivational drives and shining a light on stories that often go unreported, A Private War brings a different set of anxieties that distinguishes it from most war films and frankly, there are enough talking points to be gained from Pike’s performance than most biopics accomplish in most years.
Despite some rough editing and stylistic choices, credit must be given to Matthew Heineman for utilising the skills he achieved from his Oscar-nominated documentary Cartel Land. Never failing to bring a sense of eerie foreboding to the entire film with its guerrilla-style documentary feel and diary entry voiceovers, you’re always touching distance from the chaos that surrounds Marie and her photojournalist Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan). Paramount to the psychological dangers, it doesn’t shy away from the ‘bring your work home with you’ reality with its brilliant recreations of Marie’s home looking like a battlefield as a vessel for the trauma to resurface.
What stops A Private War from elevating as a five-star masterpiece is how it tackles its supporting characters. Underdeveloped, they’re not given sufficient material or depth to make them particularly interesting or worth value.
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Stanley Tucci as Tony Shaw is more or less a cameo, a one-night stand/new lover for Marie to take the mind off the psychological pressures. His cameo appearance is still better than Andy Garcia’s ‘blink, and you will miss him’ appearance in Passengers, but for someone who carries your attention with every role he does, Tucci is worth more than what was presented. Tom Hollander as news editor Sean Ryan comfortably languishes in duplicitous mode, someone who cares more about the story, the reputation of the paper and the number of awards it receives instead of the welfare of their top reporter.
Even Paul gets left behind in the conversation. Some of the most humane moments from A Private War is Marie’s friendship with Paul, and while it can be easily explained away by Heineman’s devoted focal point, it somewhat represents a missed opportunity to see more of its development. The profound moments they share are bleak conversations tinged with dark humour. For example, it’s Marie justifying wearing a fancy bra because if she died, she wanted to look good when they dragged her body out of the trenches or acknowledging their regret at not booking a trip to Aleppo (as if the situation was going to be better there!) as they camp out in Homs, Syria under the terrible barrage of militarised shelling.
There’s always a danger with biopics because of its brief narratives and missed opportunities and thoughts linger whether it could have delved deeper into the humanitarian crisis that Marie reported on. Make no mistake there are heartbreaking moments which forces us to acknowledge government immorality and lack of humanity. But as authentically real it challenges itself to be, capturing the visceral terror and the emotion to carry it through when it mattered is strangely absent in some places. What Heineman presents are snapshots that scratch the surface, and perhaps the best way to explore that comprehensive context would be to view Under the Wire.
However, what A Private War ultimately represents is an understanding of Marie Colvin’s life. It doesn’t pretend to be perfect, but it does enough to mirror and relay its message. Pike’s tour-de-force performance is enough to give it that credibility as a first step basis for further insight (or in my case, go and watch the documentary).
As Marie, Rosamund Pike empathetically gives it her all, humanising her complex yet flawed frailties. Placing its audience in situations we wouldn’t dream thinking about, it celebrates the rebellious bravery to what she accomplished. Just like the real-life Colvin, she put a human face to war. “I saw it so you don’t have to,” she says, and somewhere out there, someone forgot to announce Pike’s Oscar nomination.