Movie Reviews: A Private War (2018)

It’s taken longer than expected, but we’ve finally ventured into the biopic portion of Oscar Season.  Our first subject is as quite favored by Hollywood, a writer, since there’s nothing writers love more than writing about their profession.  Marie Colvin was an acclaimed war correspondent who served in position for the British paper The Sunday Times from 1986 until her death (you can hardly spoil real life and the movie very obviously counts down to the moment in Homs, Syria the entire length of the film) in 2012.

Her role here is played by Rosamund Pike (An Education, Gone Girl, etc.) who has been quite obviously aged up.  It’s hardly unexpected given that’s how movies are made, but it’s never convincing.  The film focuses on her career starting in 2001, long after she has become established in her position.  Instead, it picks that year because that was when she acquired her trademark eyepatch in Sri Lanka, during an RPG attack while she attempted to surrender to the enemy troops.

Colvin is portrayed as a chain-smoking, alcoholic who is addicted to her job.  When she wakes up after losing the eye, she hardly hesitates before getting back to her work.  She also doesn’t let the loss of an eye stop her from continuing her job, heading right back into the field.  She shows little concern for the rules and actively seems to head away from where the leaders want to shepherd her.  The film can hardly contain its enthusiasm for her with Tom Hollander’s Sean Ryan (her editor at the paper) and Jamie Dornan’s Paul Conroy (a freelance photographer she meets in Iraq) being the most egregious in effusing just how important and wonderful of a writer she is, the film stopping only just short of hagiography (if it stops there).

As the film progresses, her PTSD grows as Hollander’s awful human being of a foreign editor keeps her in the game.  “Yes, let’s keep forcing back in someone mentally deteriorating from stress back into a war zone when she is trying to quit and then trying to justify it with mawkish speeches”.  I’m not even sure where the movie falls on the subject as it seems to bizarrely sympathize with him if the music is to be believed.  She travels to Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria, exposing herself to more tragedies and suffering increasing flashbacks and nightmares.

Pike certainly does a lot of acting, but I’m not sure that qualifies it as a great performance.  The film punctuates the action with her writing which serves as narration and can’t help but come across as overblown even considering the context of all the atrocities.  It certainly doesn’t help the way that the film frames her swanning about as it narrates her writing, trying to spice up her typing.   Dornan (The Fall, Anthropoid) on the other hand quietly gives a more interesting and quieter performance opposite her.  It’s also just nice to see Stanley Tucci show up and serve as a drama free portion of the film and get by on that Tucci charm.

There are moments when the film come alive, when it focuses on the people Colvin wrote about or when it uses its traverses around the world (or at least appears to since the film only appears to have shot in London and Jordan) and gives varied and vivid views of the scenes on the ground there and the scenery.  Director Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land, City of Ghosts, The Trade), in his fiction debut clearly has a better grasp of these elements than the more narrative and acting elements which aren’t much to speak of.