David G. Hughes on Matthew Heineman’s A’ Private War‘ (2018)
As the journalism industry sits on its knees, reliant upon salacious click-bait stories just to survive in a nascent digital world, journalistic integrity crumbles alongside with it. But the cinema is here to remind us of the professions indispensable importance — of real journalism in an age of “Fake News”. Or perhaps it recollects its most noble exceptions as the ideal to strive towards. Steven Spielberg did as much with The Post (2017), a story about The Washington Post’s courageous commitment to exposing the truth against tyrannical opposition (the Nixon White House). Even more recently, Agnieszka Holland’s Mr Jones (2019) is a tale of journalism as an ethical necessity, the noble profession of Truth and Freedom inseparable from a functional society. Now Matthew Heineman has made A Private War, an enthralling, psychologically complex narrativisation of the life and exploits of the thrill-seeking foreign war correspondent for The Sunday Times, Marie Colvin.
Colvin is first and foremost a humanist, interested in people more than politics (although she certainly knows politics) out to tell “your story”, as she says to the roadside victims and relatives of the dead. Anything other than factual reporting of the human cost, in her eyes, and your just “making yourself feel better.” But she’s also addicted — Sri Lanka, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria. She can’t stop. “You’re like a moth to a flame”, one discontented lover tells her from lack of attention. Kathryn Bigelow had previously explored the addiction of desert warfare in The Hurt Locker (2008) from the perspective of a soldier, but this is a more sophisticated and touching film, replete with truisms, depth, and human drama. Rather than simply “War is Hell”, it is, “War is Hell, But…”
Rosamund Pike is excellent as Colvin. While she has previously shown unnerving restraint and composure in her roles (Gone Girl), here she embodies boisterous American jest, a likeable brusqueness of speech, a commanding presence, and a voice soaked in whiskey. The accent is spot-on also. It’s a role you could conceive Charlize Theron doing (Theron is a producer on the film) but Pike does enough to make it her own and deliver a career high-point. In other words, Pike does everything Nicole Kidman recently failed to do when attempting a masculinist alcoholic in Destroyer (2019).
What elevates A Private War is that it is not only a celebration of journalistic integrity (though it is that), as was The Post and Spotlight ( 2015); it is also a deeply touching character study of addiction, psychological endurance, and inner turmoil. For while Colvin is greatly admired for her strength and tenacity, she is a gifted sufferer — diagnosed with PTSD (“You’ve seen more of war than most soldiers”, says her trusted Scouser photographer played by Jamie Dornan), teeth yellowing from incessant chain-smoking, sustained by substances. There’s a hint of decrepit Romanticism à la Hunter S. Thompson or Christopher Hitchens that could conceivably glamorise the life, but the film asks the question: what is the burden of doing something “good”?
In mythology, an eye-patch or blindness is often symbolic for the burden of seeing – attaining (unwelcome) knowledge. Marie Colvin is a real-life Odin in that sense – affected by the terrors of the world and burdened by the knowledge. Her psychological state becomes reflective of the chaos across the globe, and residue of war often erupts within the relative harmony of her Western life that is contrasted as comfortably ignorant. Tom Hollander plays, as he often does, the plush white-collar man with a central London desk – the editor of the paper who never looks into the fire but gets all the awards; “You see it so we don’t have to!” he tells her. This is just one device that alludes to a presiding sense of multivariate injustice within the film. The narrative is structured around a countdown: “10 years to Homs”. Thus a sense of inevitable and impending doom gradually creeps in until demise is claustrophobically close. The final sequences in Syria are extremely powerful. Thus the film also functions as an ambivalent cautionary tale about flying too close to the sun, with Annie Lennox’ title music asking “Why do these cold stars burn so bright?”. In this sense, it’s not too different from the ethos of Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man (2005) which concerned another thrill-seeking individual who toyed with alluring wild bears longer than naturally permissible.
A Private War is a psychologically perspicacious vérité film that reminds us that a hero isn’t necessarily someone with a stellar personality or of exemplary intelligence; they are in fact often tainted and crude, ill-shaped and just the right amount of stupid. You cannot even say Colvin was a selfless individual. Yet a hero can endure and sublimate the suffering of the world for the benefit of others and, in the midst of it all, maintain hope for a better world. Colvin was far from naive, and yet she believed in the fundamental goodness of people; all they had to do was learn, and then things will change. That’s a hopeful thing. The problem was that Colvin did all the learning for us. Unable to play Atlas forever, she paid the price to the shame of us all. Here is a film that does justice to an exceptional and complex individual as well as the ambiguities of the human heart.
A Private War is in cinemas now.