A Private War: Neglectful Despair

Image courtesy of Aviron Pictures.

** ½ (out of 4)

Marie Colvin was a journalist whom even Donald Trump would be hard-pressed not to admire. Throughout the 1990s, she provided on-the-ground coverage of conflicts in Chechnya, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, and East Timor, documenting in graphic detail the toll that combat took on civilians. Even after she lost an eye to a grenade in 2001, moreover, Colvin refused to call it quits. After reporting on the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, she almost got beaten to death during the 2011 protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. And when civil war erupted in Syria, she snuck into the rebel stronghold of Homs, eventually meeting her demise in an artillery attack that was deliberately orchestrated by the Syrian government.

Given that Colvin was such a daring and colorful character, Matthew Heineman’s new biopic of her, A Private War, could easily have been an adrenaline-boosting thriller à la Raiders of the Lost Ark. Instead, the defining mood of A Private War is one of overwhelming, funereal despair. Each act in the narrative is preceded by intertitles that state the number of years that the depicted events took place “before Homs,” offering a constant reminder that Colvin’s career ended in tragedy. Additionally, the film eschews the kind of rapid editing that directors often rely on to generate suspense. Instead, Heineman frequently uses long takes, and the resultant slow pacing suffuses the narrative with an air of melancholy and helplessness.

As though these attributes weren’t enough to set the film’s tone, moreover, A Private War also features a fittingly somber performance from Rosamund Pike, the English actress who plays Colvin. As Pike illustrates, Colvin wasn’t exactly a romantic adventurer. Rather, the journalist we see on screen is a tormented being, a recalcitrant advocate for the innocent who never shook off the feeling that all her efforts would ultimately go to waste. Throughout the narrative, Pike imbues her role with the perfect mixture of chutzpah and vulnerability, creating an achingly believable portrait of a person whose success brings nothing but pain and intractable trauma. If you’re familiar with some of the more one-dimensional roles that Pike has had in the past (think A United Kingdom and Beirut), the nuance she displays here makes for a refreshing and moving watch.

Image courtesy of Aviron Pictures.

Sadly, however, Pike’s magnificent acting can’t make up for A Private War’s two major weaknesses. Start with the cinematography. Even as it effectively conveys Colvin’s helplessness via long takes, it often feels too elegant for its own good. Throughout the film, the camera’s movements remain conspicuously smooth, and the landscape shots it provides of war zones are invariably, perversely beautiful to look at. Like Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography in The Revenant, in short, Robert Richardson’s work here will probably make you go, “Wow, this is so pretty” – a sentiment that just doesn’t sit well with the trauma, death, and suffering that pervade the narrative.

The larger problem with A Private War, meanwhile, is the attitude it adopts towards victims of war. As mentioned, the real-life Colvin was always quite explicit about her objectives as a journalist. In her eyes, her job was to recount the suffering of innocent civilians who inadvertently found themselves caught in the crossfire of battle. Claiming that “the world needs to hear these people’s stories,” she hoped that her eyewitness accounts could push Westerners to overcome the disinterest that they typically exhibit towards the Third World.

What’s frustrating about A Private War, however, is that it largely fails to adopt the anti-apathy mentality that guided its subject in real life. As the film follows Colvin’s travels around the globe, it regularly features shots of crying or injured civilians (many of whom, incidentally, are actual refugees). Yet although Heineman eventually does take time to explore some of these people’s backstories, the film’s attitude towards them is generally one of indifference. Put another way: it’s as though these people were only included in the film for the sake of creating a more “realistic” backdrop for the narrative. Instead of taking an interest in them personally, Heineman treats these civilians as mere props, depersonalized vehicles whose only function is to induce trauma and distress in the (white and Western) protagonists.

Image courtesy of Aviron Pictures.

You could argue, of course, that A Private War isn’t meant to be a film about war’s victims. It’s a biopic of Colvin, after all, and that naturally means that her struggles are prioritized over others’. Yet even if A Private War’s neglectful treatment of war victims is understandable in theory, it in practice reinforces the very kind of indifference that Colvin fought against her entire life. Colvin was a brave journalist, and her accomplishments deserve the many homages they’ve received in the years since her death. But in light of its implicitly dismissive portrayal of civilians, Heineman’s attempt at a cinematic tribute simply doesn’t do justice to the nature of her work. Had Colvin gotten the chance to see this film, I don’t think it’d be a stretch to say that she would’ve been cussing at the screen.

Image courtesy of Aviron Pictures.

***

A Private War (2018)

Starring: Rosamund Pike, Jamie Dornan, Stanley Tucci

Running Time: 106 minutes

MPAA Rating: R, “for disturbing violent images, language throughout, and brief sexuality/nudity.”

Produced by: Matthew Heineman, Matthew George, Basil Iwanyk, Marissa McMahon, Charlize Theron

Written by: Arash Amel. Based on Marie Brenner’s 2012 Vanity Fair article “Marie Colvin’s Private War.”

Directed by: Matthew Heineman