A Private war

- Review by Alison Traynor

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The making of biographical films can be a risky business. One wrong move on the director’s part and they can descend into cloying sycophancy. Likewise, any slight lapse in accuracy or a tendency for the director to exaggerate the facts can be not only detrimental to a biopic’s purpose, but a violation of the subject. However, one as sensitively and passionately created as Matthew Heineman’s A Private War shows that if done correctly, they can be a true and fascinating testament to those they are about. Overall, it provides an immersive experience which will appeal to both Marie Colvin aficionados and those who know little about her.

The subject in this case is Marie Colvin, an American foreign affairs correspondent who tragically died in 2012, when an IED exploded while she was reporting in Syria. The film paints a portrait of a courageous, intelligent and determined woman who risked her life in pursuit of the truth. At the same time, it refuses to shy away from her vulnerabilities, portraying her as the human being she was rather than an unrealistic caricature, which she could have easily become. Alcoholism, PTSD and relationship difficulties all feature, but thankfully they function to humanise her rather than to take attention away from her incredible achievements. Heineman’s representation of PTSD is particularly affecting, as it is something which he forces the viewers to experience too. Gruesome flashback images punctuated by images of Colvin’s intense distress inevitably arouse a sense of panic and horror as you watch. Her acts of self-destruction revealingly run side by side with the destruction she witnesses over the course of her career, emphasising the impact that war has upon those who witness it.

Colvin is played extremely adeptly by Rosamund Pike, in one of her best performances to date. Vocally, her tones are uncannily accurate. She is unmistakably Colvin, embodying her persona through and through. Riskier casting choices also work surprisingly well, with Jamie Dornan swapping bondage for a camera, playing Paul Conroy, Colvin’s photographer. This platonic relationship is the most interesting in the film, with the relationships with her husbands and one-night-stands fading into insignificance when compared with the experiences and confidences she shared with Paul.

The film certainly does not attempt to glorify the realities of her work. There is nothing romantic about the imagery of starving children and ravaged landscapes. Scenes of falling rubble as Colvin sits in dilapidated buildings, desperately typing on her laptop, hyper-aware of the immediate danger she is in, will remain in your memory for long after the film has finished. It is also commendable in the way it provides a critical perspective on the role of journalism and the media. While Colvin was risking her life in the hope that she could grant those in war zones a better life through the transmission of knowledge, those she worked for sat around thinking about what news stories could make them the most money. Social commentary is rife, leaving the viewer with vital insight into the worlds of both war and the media, which are connected more closely than one might realise.