A Private War
2018, R, 106 min. Directed by Matthew Heineman. Starring Rosamund Pike, Jamie Dornan, Stanley Tucci, Nikki Amuka-Bird.
REVIEWED By Matthew Monagle, Fri., Nov. 9, 2018
Take the director of fearless documentaries like Cartel Land and City of Ghosts (Heineman) and let him make his feature debut with the real-life story of a legendary war correspondent. The math makes sense, doesn't it? And there are even times when both the subject and aesthetics of A Private War seem to align accordingly; unfortunately, the film is incapable of sustaining this poignancy for any extended period of time.
For decades, The Sunday Times reporter Marie Colvin (Pike) was the face of war correspondents around the globe. Embedded in some of the most violent parts of the world, Colvin worked tirelessly to transform the idea of war – itself an enormous and horrible concept with little room for empathy – into a series of personalized anecdotes people could understand. A Private War follows Colvin in the decade prior to her death, introducing us to the people who supported her and shining a light on the unique alliances and friendships that form between journalists who run toward, not away from, the worst acts of violence.
It should be clear by now that Pike is not afraid to make big choices onscreen. Here she finds a personality much to her liking. Colvin is a steely gaze hidden behind a cloud of cigarette smoke; Pike is given her fair share of dramatic moments in the film, but these feel like a necessary outlet for her character, a continuous release of pressure that keeps the machine itself from falling apart. Pike would have benefited from more confident character-building – the film initially frames her as someone caught between the demands of a career and the desire for family – but the film's problems are despite her performance, not because of them.
Where A Private War struggles is with its own message. The film wants to shine a light on political apathy – an apathy that requires journalists like Colvin to run headfirst into danger to drum up public interest – but that message is buried beneath layers of dramatized self-destruction. The "who" and the "where" matter less to Heineman’s film than its suggestion that Colvin is deeply affected by post-traumatic stress disorder. That’s an interesting message in its own right – and one the movie tackles at some length – but it’s also one that relegates the refugee populations she worked with to the sidelines of her narrative. Even in the film’s big finale, the Syrian refugees Colvin moves amongst are just a backdrop for her personal tragedy. When it mattered most, A Private War revealed itself to be just another middling biopic.