Sometimes it can be hard to understand the motivations of people who put themselves in harm’s way, and “war correspondent” ranks high on the list of jobs I can’t imagine ever wanting. The strength of director Matthew Heineman’s biopic of award-winning journalist Marie Colvin, A Private War, is that it psychologizes its subject without belaboring the point, delivering a moving character study that peels back the layers of a distinctive, if occasionally impenetrable mind. Though Heineman’s narrative structure is frustratingly convoluted, star Rosamund Pike delivers a powerful performance that mitigates many of the film’s cinematic shortcomings. Still, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that such a moving subject deserved a better film treatment.
Whether or not you recognize the name, you’ve probably come across Marie Colvin’s work. In her 30-plus-year career covering conflicts ranging from Iraq and Afghanistan to Libya and Syria and everything in between, Colvin continuously risked her life to bring attention to those affected by violence. Basically, if there was a shooting war between the mid-’80s and her untimely death in 2012, Colvin was there. She even turned in a story on deadline after losing an eye to an RPG in El Salvador — to put that in perspective, I can’t reliably hit a deadline if I run out of coffee. It’s a remarkable life, one that Heineman and screenwriter Arash Amel cover competently in spite of their tendency to overcomplicate matters.
Pike’s performance lends Colvin an appropriately hard edge while still conveying the beating heart at the core of her character. It would have been easy to lose Colvin’s humanity amid her almost superhuman feats of reckless disregard for personal safety, but Pike gives consistent indications of what’s going on behind the eye patch. It’s a remarkably powerful performance, and I would go so far as to say Pike deserves some love for it come Oscar season. While Heineman and Amel do their best to suggest the motivations at the core of Colvin’s increasingly dangerous lifestyle, they don’t really reach a satisfying conclusion in their solipsistic quest to define the indefinable.
I doubt it would have been possible to really get to the heart of what compelled Colvin to take the risks that she did, but A Private War comes closest when it allows Colvin to speak for herself, pulling from an interview in which she described her desire to make people care about these war zones as much as she did. The idea of convincing people, safe at home in their bubble of privilege, to empathize with the human cost of military conflict, is a tall order under the best of circumstances. That Colvin managed to put a human face to those living through these struggles while reporting from the front lines is an astonishing feat for which we all owe her a posthumous debt of gratitude.
The real pitfall for A Private War is that Heineman and Amel mangle their structure and pacing so egregiously that Colvin’s story is occasionally obscured by their baffling narrative choices. Heineman deconstructs his timeline and cuts between Colvin’s internal and external point of view with a grating inconsistency, jarring the viewer out of engagement with the story. While Colvin’s character is sufficiently developed, those in her orbit are not so lucky, and the film suffers as a result. Still, despite its shortcomings, A Private War is a film that sheds light on a deserving subject — and Pike’s performance really is something to write home about.