Film Review: A Private War.

Film Review Series by Lance Sinclair.

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This week State Library of Queensland’s cinephile, Lance Sinclair, reviews A Private War, directed by Matthew Heineman and starring Rosamund Pike and Jamie Dornan.

Image from film A Private War, directed by Matthew Heineman, produced by Acacia Filmed Entertainment et al, streamed by Kanopy database.

A PRIVATE WAR

You're never going to get to where you're going if you acknowledge fear. I think fear comes later

The words are from Marie Colvin, the war correspondent for newspaper "The Sunday Times". It’s a quote often used in relation to her, and a fitting one. A journalist since the mid-1980's Marie Colvin covered conflicts in Chechnya, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, East Timor and Zimbabwe amongst others, frequently descending into lawless zones of armed conflict to bring otherwise hidden facts of genocide and oppression into the homes of the West.  Starting with the incident in Sri Lanka which cost her the use of her left eye, A Private War follows Marie through the last ten years of her life.

Rosamund Pike, doing what anyone playing an actual historical figure should attempt, vanishes into the portrayal of Colvin. We are given here a person that is unquestionably doing the right things – the important things, braving danger to reveal grim truths, but a person who is also driven by their own compulsions, who is moving through life in a state of constant acceleration. This is a person who we see dealing with their own trauma and battling the ghosts of previous horrors by pushing, always pushing forward into deeper horrors, more profound darkness and the subsequent strangulation of a personal life that will never be able to exist separately from the ripples and scars that infect it. The person we get to know in this story is someone channelling unhealthy impulses into a tool for hopefully positive change. Jamie Dornan, known best for his participation in the Fifty Shades franchise (despite actually having a fine body of work behind him) is an excellent filmic companion for our hero, in his role as Paul Conroy, the photojournalist that was possessed of sufficient bravery and foolishness to accompany Marie Colvin through the final act of her story.

Matthew Heineman is a director who excels at making his viewers feel as though they are immersively moving further into increasingly dangerous terrain. His prior documentary Cartel Land (also available to view through Kanopy) is a piece that not only forms a kind of traditional filmic narrative structure out of something as complex and formless as the ongoing extra-legal skirmishes between Mexican drug cartels and American vigilante paramilitary groups, but also methodically draws us into scenarios so frightening and perilous that the simple act of watching them puts the viewer ill at ease and looking over our shoulders for a possible way out of where we’ve found ourselves. Cartel Land, despite firmly being a documentary feature, is shot and edited to feel more like a fictional movie. Its camerawork is as beautiful as it is harrowing, and when possible it’s a story that focuses on the emotional drives if it’s subjects as much as it does the basic facts of their precarious lives.

In A Private War he uses these skills just as effectively, staging the many sequences of Marie Colvin’s eternal return to conflict with increasing terror and claustrophobia, through to her ultimate act of reportage from the flaming city of Homs, Syria in 2012. The pursuit of truth, and more importantly the global sharing of that truth, driving her past all points of restraint, even against the instincts of Jamie Dornan’s fearless ally, who will be left at the end of our story as the next torchbearer of Colvin’s flame.

We bear witness to her bravery through these re-enactments in a way that feels honest. What we’re watching isn’t real of course, but it is a meticulously researched re-enactment lensed by someone who is intimate with conflict, tension and risk. It feels earned and true, and a genuine tribute to a woman whose life was defined by her active, informed choices. A person fully aware of the likely end of their story, weighed against the achievements to be taken from these choices.

In the end, a bio-pic can only approximate its subjects life. Capturing the essence of what a person meant to themselves and those around them, often through assumption, leaps of logic and second-hand anecdotes. At best, one can offer an emotional truth about the subject and the general shape of their lives, struggles and achievements.  A Private War should be used as an example of what the genre can do when it is operating its absolute highest level.  It’s a beautiful, inspiring story that should leave all of us asking if we are living the fullest, bravest life we’re capable of.

Further reading

  • Colvin, Marie Catherine (1956–2012), journalist. Hilsum, Lindsey. 2016. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press) (reference entry)
  • Marie Colvin: maker of myths. Maughan, Philip. 2015. New Statesman; Vol. 144 (5265), p.14 (article)
  • Marie Colvin's Private War. Brenner, Marie. 2012. Vanity Fair; Vol. 54 (8), p.94 (article)
  • Venerable DP Lenses Fictional Version of Journalist's Tragic Story. Valentini, Valentina. 2018. Variety; Vol. 342 (1), p. 162 (article)
  • Becoming the story : war correspondents since 9/11. Palmer, Lindsay; Urbana, Chicago, Springfield, Illinois : University of Illinois Press ; 2018 (ebook)
  • Reporting dangerously : journalist killings, intimidation and security. Cottle, Simon ; Sambrook, Richard and Mosdell, Nick ; London, England : Palgrave Macmillan ; 2016 (ebook)
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