With a certain occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue constantly claiming that the news is fake – especially anything disputing his view of the world – it’s important to remember that news is often written in the blood of those doing the reporting. In 2017, 48 journalists were killed worldwide, and 262 were imprisoned (73 in Turkey alone). This gives an immediacy to the new movie A Private War, which tells the story of Marie Colvin, the celebrated war correspondent for the London Sunday Times who died during the siege of Homs in Syria in 2012.
The movie begins – and ends – with a view of battle-torn Homs and a voice over provided by the real Colvin. In between the camera follows her from Sri Lanka, covering the Tamil rebellion, through Iraq, Libya, and finally to Syria. Wherever there was a hotspot, Colvin would be there. In her life she also covered Kosovo, Zimbabwe, and the Ivory Coast, though the Middle East was her specialty. The screenplay by Arash Amel is based on Marie Brenner’s Vanity Fair article, “Marie Colvin’s Private War,” and it both looks at the conflicts and their affect on Colvin herself. Physically she lost an eye, leading to her wearing an eye patch through much of her career, but the psychological costs were even higher. You can’t cover the discovery of a mass tomb of Saddam Hussein’s victims or a hospital purposefully targeted for attack without wearing out a bit of your soul.
The film does an excellent job of recreating the conflicts Colvin covered, though it misses what led her from her birth in Queens, New York, and her childhood in Oyster Bay on Long Island to her working for the Sunday Times. She’d been an exchange student in Brazil during her junior year of high school and attended Yale to get an anthropology degree. However, while there she took a class from John Hersey, one of the first practitioners of “New Journalism” which combined storytelling with non-fiction reporting to bring an emotional element to the story. A war correspondent during WWII, Hersey won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the aftermath of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Colvin did graduate with her anthropology degree but following the course with Hersey she was set on a course to be a globe-trotting reporter, first for United Press International, and then for Sunday Times.
Director Matthew Heineman is known for his documentaries – he received an Oscar nomination for Cartel Land in 2015 – and he brings a straightforward realism to the filming of Colvin’s story. But what gives the film its fire is a riveting performance by Rosamund Pike. Her voice tells the story of cigarettes and booze, all consumed in extreme quantities. While on assignment, she’s a juggernaut, doing everything she can to get the story. (One scene has her talking her way past a roadblock in Iraq by telling the guards she’s a nurse, using her gym membership card as her documentation.) Back in England, without the tension of war, the cracks kept together under pressure break open, leaving her vulnerable, even as she hides behind a prickly exterior.
Pike’s ably supported by Jamie Dornan as Paul Conroy, Colvin’s long-time photographer. A former soldier, Conroy knew the danger of war zones but still went back, this time armed only with a camera. There’s also an interlude in the piece where Colvin become romantically involved with a man played by Stanley Tucci.
When Colvin was killed, the Syrian government put out the story that she died from an IED explosion, to blame anti-government rebels in Homs for her death. However, that was disputed by Conroy, who survived and testified it was an artillery attack from the government forces that likely used the signal from the broadcast Colvin had just finished in order to target her location. Colvin had had to sneak into Syria via off-road motorcycle as the government tried to cut off any independent reports of what was happening. They wanted the story to be that they were fighting violent rebels, not blasting away at citizens who didn’t support Assad’s repressive regime. For the government, Marie Colvin was dangerous, for she was an independent witness to the war crimes they wanted to hide from the world. It cost Colvin her life.
Whether they’re throwing bombs or throwing insults, tyrants and would-be dictators know that an independent press is a threat to them, and they’ll do whatever they can to keep reporters from doing their job. Thank God for people like Marie Colvin, who speak the truth to power.