A Private War

You have a God-given talent for making people stop and care.

We live in uncertain times. The very notion of what is true and what is not is under daily attack. Journalists are under fire, labeled enemies of the people. No, not the “journalists” who consider “opinion done right” to be news. It is no mistake we’re seeing more films depicting truth in journalism, the most recent being Steven Spielberg’s The Post.

Into this climate of uncertainty comes the biopic of Marie Colvin’s (Rosamund Pike) life, A Private War. Directed by Matthew Heineman (who has directed documentaries until this point), the film delves into the war correspondent’s career—and the impact that career had on her life. I was unfamiliar with Colvin coming in, but when I left the theater I felt as though Heineman had laid her bare.

Work hard. Live hard.

As a war correspondent, Colvin was sent along with other journalists to report on the action. These reporters are typically embedded with a unit. Colvin preferred to pursue her own path, to get at the real stories. To her, the impact of war was not how many bombs were dropped or whether a unit encountered and traded fire with an enemy. You have, of course, heard the term collateral damage. That was where Colvin went for stories, to those survivors of collateral damage. And to do so, she had to push her own fear aside, to let it come later as she puts it, to progress into harrowing conditions, with bullets flying and mortars going off and dust and rubble clattering atop her.

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Pike, A Private War

And while we live in what we call “The Long Peace”, it’s clearly not been peaceful. While the film picks up in Sri Lanka in 2001, Colvin had been doing this for years already, having interviewed Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in 1986. But it is in Sri Lanka where the concussion and shrapnel from an RPG takes her eye. Despite the wound, she pulls out her recorder to dictate her story, blood soaking through the bandage where her left eye once was.

Any good biopic will hit the highlights of its subject’s life, and Heineman does so with a practiced documentarian’s eye. But the script does more than jump us from one conflict to another. Because after more than a decade of covering war, of chasing stories outside the normal boundaries for a journalist, Colvin begins to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). After heading to Iraq, and again putting her life at risk to chase the thread of a story, she returns home tormented by nightmares and images of what she’s seen in the field. While she scoffs at the notion of PTSD—”only soldiers suffer from that”—it’s clear she’s seen enough savagery, enough brutality, enough horror.

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Pike, A Private War

She can’t stay away, of course. She’s addicted at this point. Addicted to cigarettes, to alcohol, perhaps to the adrenaline of danger as well. In her own words, she’s compelled. And Pike repeats that word, fingers like talons trying to grasp the truth from the jaws of those who would deny her access to it: “Compelled.” That compulsion would push her into Afghanistan, Libya (and another encounter with Gaddafi) and Syria.

This is Rosamund Pike as you’ve never seen her. Or perhaps more accurately, this is Marie Colvin breathing her story through Pike. There will be an Oscar nomination here or the Academy has completely lost all credibility. While the supporting cast is strong and provide solid performances, Pike is the epicenter. She is riveting to watch: emotional, raw, torn, beaten, heroic. She must have spent hours watching video of Colvin. The mannerisms of touching the eye patch, of handling the lack of depth perception from missing her left eye, even down to Colvin’s accent. Forget about a journalist being embedded with an army unit; Pike is embedded so thoroughly into Colvin that she becomes her.

And in becoming Colvin, Pike tells the story of the storyteller. Colvin gave voice to those without one. She bore witness for those who needed their truths to be shared. She became a vessel through which emotion could be felt. She had the God-given talent for making people stop and care. And Pike has the God-given talent for making us stop and care as well, to bear witness to Colvin’s story, to feel the truth of it in our bones, to be the vessel for Marie Colvin.

★★★★★

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