“In covering war, do we really make a difference?” asks war correspondent Marie Colvin (Rosamund Pike) in director Matthew Heineman’s A Private War, which is set near the beginning of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. That this moment of existential self-doubt is framed as ominous—her words are heard over a low-angle shot of women trudging along a road in burqas—offers some indication of how seriously the filmmakers take the ethics of field reporting on atrocities. Based on Marie Brenner’s Vanity Fair article about the real-life Colvin, A Private War ultimately sides with the late journalist’s assertion that the whos and whys of war matter far less in journalism than finding the right human-interest angle to hook an audience.
Colvin’s obsessive desire to get the most dangerous, exciting story she can is positioned as a kind of feedback loop in which her inability to cope with the trauma of what she’s seen compels her to pursue ever-more harrowing subject matter, which in turn further compounds her trauma. That insight is certainly keen, but the film clumsily falls back on the clichés of war being hell and akin to a drug, and often leans on dismal dialogue to bluntly spell out Colvin’s issues. In one exchange, her sister, Rita (Nikki Amuka-Bird), hesitantly asks, “Do you think you have post-traumatic stress disorder?” To which Colvin brashly responds: “PTSD is what soldiers get.” Elsewhere, Colvin neatly lays out all of her fears to her photographer, Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan), tritely stating that she keeps a strict diet in order to stay fit but that she also eats gregariously because she’s seen so much starvation in the world.
The simplicity with which Pike plays up the jitteriness of someone gripped by alcoholism and PTSD is unfortunate given how the actress so skillfully conveys the minutiae of Colvin’s actual work and its perils. Pike especially nails Colvin’s difficulties in adjusting to the loss of her left eye after she sustained head injuries while embedded with Tamil guerrillas in Sri Lanka. When Colvin hears someone speak to her while standing on her blind side, Pike wheels her head around just a bit too quickly, giving us an un-schticky sense of the panic the woman feels at not being able to sense how close people are to her at any given moment. Likewise, Colvin’s loss of depth perception is reflected in a subtle but incessant series of head bobs as the woman constantly leans into and away from objects as she attempts to gauge their distance.
At its best, A Private War puts Colvin’s cynicism under an interrogation lamp, digging into the extreme careerism that undergirds her drive to report the truth. This can be most plainly seen in the naked greed of her editor, Sean (Tom Hollander), a figure of almost Mephistophelean dimensions. The man, aware of the prestige that Colvin’s work brings to The Times, constantly and successfully goads his star reporter back into the field, even if it means putting her sanity at risk. But Sean, like every other aspect of Colvin’s life depicted on screen, is ultimately softened with a sentimental brushstroke, as in the way his manipulations are recast as awestruck appreciation for Colvin’s singular ability to infiltrate and report on some of the most dangerous places on Earth. The film’s final moments show how her compulsive inability to drop a story directly informed her death, and the framing of her single-minded obsession as heroic rather than tragic only simplifies her life’s work.