Marie Colvin was one of the great combat correspondents of our time, covering conflicts everywhere from Chechnya to Sierra Leone to Sri Lanka to East Timor, and breaking stories of great impact in a career spanning more than a quarter-century.
I say “was,” because Marie Colvin is gone. It’s one thing to issue a spoiler alert or to avoid revealing the fate of the lead in a fictional tale, but it feels like it would be disrespectful to the memory of Ms. Colvin to treat her life — and her death — like a plot point.
Colvin, who had been a foreign affairs correspondent for the British newspaper the Sunday Times since 1985, and the French photographer Remi Ochlik were killed on Feb. 22, 2012, while covering the civil war in Syria and the Assad regime’s massacre of thousands of men, women and children.
“A Private War” is a straightforward and conventional but also appropriately grimy and bloody chronicle of the last 12 years of Colvin’s life. Despite the occasional moment where the depiction of newsroom procedures doesn’t quite ring true, or a supporting character delivers a line that’s a little too perfect and succinct for the moment, most of what transpires feels grimly authentic and true to the real-life characters and events.
The British actress Rosamund Pike, who often gives off a vibe of cool reserve (even when it might not be ideally suited to the part), admirably throws herself into her portrayal of Colvin. Pike’s husky, no-nonsense delivery is a spot-on take on the real Marie’s voice (as heard in TV and radio interviews), without sounding like an impersonation. Pike is equally believable in scenes when Colvin is crawling through the muck and dodging gunfire in hellish war zones, or when she’s gliding through a London soiree in high heels and a black dress.
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Director Matthew Heineman and screenwriter Arash Amel (adapting a 2012 Vanity Fair profile by Marie Brenner) alternate between chaotic, sometimes murky docudrama-style sequences of Colvin’s harrowing experiences in some of the darkest and most dangerous pockets of the world and her time back home in London, where she tried to play the part of the dashing, wisecracking, life-of-the-party, rock-star journalist at cocktail parties and awards ceremonies, even as she was battling PTSD and sinking ever deeper into alcoholism.
(Little wonder director Heineman so expertly re-creates the war zone sequences, given his work as a documentarian includes “Cartel Land,” an unflinching look at the Mexican drug wars, and “City of Ghosts,” about the Syrian citizen journalist activists known as RBSS.)
In one of the most intense scenes in a movie filled with intensity, Colvin is felled by a grenade blast while covering the Sri Lankan Civil War in 2001, and loses her left eye.
Cut to a posh event in London, where Colvin sports an eye patch and copes with her situation by engaging in dark humor, as when she tells her editor to stop standing on her immediate left because she literally can’t see him from that angle.
Rather than resting on her laurels and taking a desk job, Colvin insists on returning to the most dangerous assignments imaginable, even though she’s haunted by nightmares and is becoming increasingly volatile and reckless, especially when she’s drunk.
Tom Hollander has the most thankless role in the film as Marie’s editor, who fusses about and throws little tantrums when she defies him but doesn’t take her out of the game even after she’s clearly damaged, inside and out. The charmingly scene-grabbing Stanley Tucci wanders in out of nowhere as a wealthy businessman who falls for Marie. (He’s a composite character who might as well be wearing a nametag saying, “I’m a composite character.”)
The most surprising — positively surprising — performance in the film comes from Jamie Dornan as Paul Conroy, the Royal Artillery soldier turned freelance photographer who becomes Marie’s longtime partner in journalistic madness/bravery and her fiercely loyal friend.
Dornan was about as mesmerizing as a window display mannequin in the “Fifty Shades” movies, but he’s absolutely terrific here, delivering a lovely and warm performance as arguably the most sympathetic and relatable character in the entire film. He essentially serves as the stand-in for all of us, who admire the hell out of Marie Colvin and are eternally grateful for the work she did, especially when she put a name and a face on certain atrocities and thus made it impossible for the world to ignore them — but also lament that Marie couldn’t, or wouldn’t, find a way to come home and stay home, and let others take up the front-line charge.
‘A Private War’
Aviron Pictures presents a film directed by Matthew Heineman and written byArash Amel, based on a magazine article by Marie Brenner. Rated R (for disturbing violent images, language throughout and brief sexuality/nudity). Running time: 110 minutes. Opens Friday at AMC River East and CineArts 6 in Evanston.