“A Private War” is a true story about war correspondent Marie Colvin (Rosamund Pike), who met her tragic end while on an assignment. Director Matthew Heineman does a great job getting to the essence of who Colvin was, following her incredible career as she goes behind enemy lines to uncover atrocities. Although Colvin was right at home in a war-torn city’s streets, she brought the trauma home with her, and Heineman looks to explore the price Colvin paid for being a hero.
There wasn’t a demanding editor or ruthless dictator alive who could chase Marie Colvin off a lead. Early on, she travels to Sri Lanka and chronicles firsthand accounts of the Tamil Tigers. Marie refuses to back down when the action intensifies, and an explosion blinds her in one eye. Marie isn’t even out of her hospital bed before she’s back at work, sniffing out injustices.
Marie’s resilience and talent for breaking stories earn her top honors as one of the world’s best journalists. With that acclaim comes more freedom to chase assignments, and before long she’s heading back out into war zones, each one more dangerous than the last. But her perilous lifestyle isn’t sustainable. She’s seen more horrific acts of violence than most career soldiers, and her traumatic past starts manifesting in crippling ways. Drinking and chain-smoking numbs the pain, but Marie is tormented by nightmares. She deals with her issues by throwing herself into more work, but it’s only a matter of time before she’s caught in the crossfire.
Heineman, making his narrative feature debut, and cinematographer Robert Richardson do an incredible job recreating the tension and anxiety of moving through a war zone. The filmmaker knows a thing or two about working in danger zones, his docs “Cartel Land” and “City of Ghosts” place a cinematic sheen on his frenetic footage. Richardson is one of the best DP’s in the business, working with the likes of Tarantino and Scorsese for decades. The two master craftsmen combine their skills and create a terrifying up-close look at the ravages of war. “A Private War” forces viewers to understand that during combat, there is no safe haven. Harrowing actions scenes look lifted from an actual battle. Characters state how brave Marie is, but nothing captures her bravery more than watching her run towards enemy lines as gunfire blazes all around her. These are the movie’s most thrilling and technically competent moments.
“A Private War” also explores Marie’s PTSD and how it impacted her life. Her lover mentions she screams in her sleep, and for much of the movie we see Marie self-medicate, but you only feel her pain when the movie peeks inside her tortured mind. Heineman’s jarring scene transitions and rapid cuts represent the private war Marie fights in her head every day. It’s as though she’s looking into a cracked mirror and seeing a hundred jagged reflections staring back. There is a heavy burden war correspondents must carry, and “A Private War” opens moviegoers eyes to the sacrifices journalists make. It leads one to think: How can anyone who goes to such lengths to uncover the truth work for publications that publish fake news?
“A Private War” ends with footage of the real Marie Colvin. Based on the clip, it’s easy to see how Pike intended to capture her essence. And times the actress’ attempt almost, kind of works. Unfortunately for the film, Pike just can’t pull it off and gives a poor all-around performance. She roars through scenes all crispy haired, stained teeth, and wild-eyed, performing with the fury of a Kate McKinnon character from ‘SNL.’ Pike isn’t transmitting in the same frequency range as the other actors, who are one-note but also feel more natural. Pike provides a bold and showy performance that lacks nuance and depth. She’s intense, sure. And she can take one hell of a drag off a cigarette, but PIke’s performance doesn’t show the traits of a relatable human being.
Arash Amel’s script isn’t doing Pike any favors, either. To be fair, biopics start off facing a stacked deck. They must cover large swaths of the subject’s life, leaping around years – or decades – at a time. This doesn’t leave much breathing room to develop characters, especially minor ones. We get a sense of who Marie is because people tell us who she is, not because a personality comes through in Pike’s portrayal. The story’s emotion comes from knowing this incredible woman existed and admiring how hard she fought to protect people.
“A Private War” may be positioned as an award season contender, but it doesn’t deserve a spot in the conversation. Aside from the striking scenes occurring on the battlefronts, everything else in this picture is subpar. “A Private War” works off a disjointed script and tells a dull story, populated with forgettable characters. Pike throws herself into Marie, and the intensity of her commitment is palpable, but the flashy performance feels soulless. [C-]