Cinephilia

Review: A Private War

This Halloween, girls and women of all ages took to dressing up as heroes; a particular favorite appeared to be Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She’s having quite a moment, after all, with the release of RBG, the rousing documentary about her life, the forthcoming On The Basis of Sex that sees Felicity Jones portrays a young Ginsburg, and, you know, the current administration and the risk to a generation of court decisions should she not outlast it. 

After seeing A Private War, I’d make the case that there’s another real-life figure for women (and men!) to admire and emulate: foreign affairs correspondent Marie Colvin (here inhabited to stirring effect by Rosamund Pike), who spent her life as a journalist chasing down the stories of the human cost of war. This meant she often put her own life in very real danger, heading fearlessly into conflict zones in order to be a voice for the innocent, to put their suffering on the record.

Colvin was no angel, as Arash Amel’s script (that is itself an adaptation of a Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner) makes clear. In fact, A Private War find its real depth in portraying Colvin as entirely human, imperfections and all. She smokes like a chimney and drinks to dull the undiagnosed PTSD triggered by all that time spent in a war zone. She’s stubborn to a fault and struggles in relationships, both romantic and otherwise.

But all of that pales in comparison to her conviction to witnessing the worst of the human condition and reporting on it for the world. Over and over again, we’re reminded that for Colvin, being a journalist is not just a paycheck, it is a calling. Compelled to return countless times to some of the most dangerous parts of the world at war, it cost her dearly; she lost sight in one eye covering a rebellion in Sri Lanka, and ultimately (no spoilers here, as it’s all recent history) her life in Homs, Syria as she covered that government’s horrendous assault on its own civilians.

It’s no surprise that all of this is realized with a visceral intensity by director Matthew Heineman, an Oscar nominee for his frighteningly thrilling documentary Cartel Land. Much of A Private War plays similarly, as we’re in the trenches with Colvin through it all, from running for her life through sieges by snipers to taking in the aftermath of a roadside IED and interviewing survivors in refugee shelters alike. 

Pike, who’s been quietly building a solid list of credits since the early 2000s (Die Another Day, Pride & Prejudice), arrived on most audience’s radar in David Fincher’s 2014 Gone Girl, an adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s breakout novel. Here, she not only firmly positions herself at the top of this year’s Best Actress race, but she’s easily confirmed as one of the best actors on screen today. From the wigs and eyepatches that perfectly match the real woman’s features over the years to a lower voice register and solid London-via-Long Island accent, Pike exhibits a commendable absence of ego. There’s not a single shred of the actress left, making the illusion all the more incredible as Heineman’s countdown to Colvin’s final hours marches on.

And this inevitability, that it all must come to an end, is what ultimately turns an already powerful biopic about a woman torn between doing what she’s compelled to do and her own self-preservation into a poignant memorial to a real-life hero. Even in her vices and shortcomings, Colvin nevertheless sets an example for all of us, one of making the most of the time we’re given, of serving the greater good, and of being brave enough to live—and die—as the truest, most realized version of ourselves.

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