A Private War

Two films and a book on Marie Colvin is a vindication of the judgment that Assad was responsible for her death in Homs in 2012. She was targeted and killed by mortar fire in the devastated city alongside a French journalist and her faithful photographer, Paul Conroy, who survived and was trapped for a further six days before he was rescued.

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Despite my misgivings that Hollywood would have turned this into yet another hagiography, A Private War is a fitting tribute to this committed female journalist. Matthew Heineman is a documentary film-maker and it shows. He gives the story a dramatic structure with its countdown to the end we all know is coming, by charting the last 12 years of her life before that fateful day. He uses news-style clips (particularly effective in his bird’s-eye views of devastated Homs) in his scene setting as he juxtaposes her assignments in Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Libya and finally Syria with scenes from her private life.

Unfortunately he doesn’t quite get the balance right, according to her friends. Yes, Colvin was a chain-smoking alcoholic, suffered from PTSD, was an impossible prima donna in the workplace, and incapable of remaining in a faithful relationship – whether with husbands, lovers or even with her best friend, Rita; but she was also bewitching, funny and had that innate capacity to hold people in her thrall. Her personal life was important to her, something the film rather glosses over in its desire to portray her as an obsessive tortured victim of war and ambition.

The characters who swarm around her in the film are no more than cardboard cut-outs to a large extent, even though they are of the caliber of Greg Wise, Tom Hollander, Stanley Tucci and Nikki Emuka Bird. Surely they – and Marie – deserved a bit better? They seem to be there only to prove what a pain-in-the-ass she was. 

The exception is the photographer, Conroy, played by a convincing Jamie Dornan, in a welcome change of roles from his recent outings in 50 Shades of Grey and The Fall, although again I have read that Conroy’s Scouser humour is more muted here than in real life, and formed the basis of their close relationship: they kept each other sane in a mad world. Similarly, Colvin expresses a mawkish regret over not having children, ‘just like my sister’, and had several failed IVF attempts (true); but in truth she recognised that it might have been difficult given her devotion to her profession. 

Where Heineman gets it right is in Rosamund Pike’s uncanny depiction of Colvin herself. Pike not only looks like her, but even gets the voice down to the last gravelly syllable. He is loyal to the nuance that made her war-reporting different: unlike her make colleagues, she cared little for the bangs and explosions of warfare, but concentrates on the human cost in her reporting, on the desperately sad stories of those who get caught up in someone else’s fight, most of all the women and children. She had empathy in spades, something war reporters are meant to put to one side.

What he found more difficult to portray is how much better a woman has to be operating in a man’s world (something I can relate to). As she wrote in on of her journals, ‘Maybe we feel the need to test ourselves more, to see how much we can take and survive.’ This was the driving force behind her reckless bravery in always being at the front line, her demons banished, in pursuit of the story that would bear witness to those innocent lives lost.

Heneman plays a blinder in recreating the war scenes with real refugees in Jordan, where the extras are people who had fled the destruction of their homes and slaughter of their families. In one memorable scene where Colvin is interviewing a woman survivor, I later read the woman thought that Rosamund Pike was a real journalist and entreats her to tell their story. A Private Waris a vindication of that exhortation and, together with the recent BBC documentaries on the Assad dynasty, bear testimony to the moral bankruptcy of that regime and its supporters in both the West and Russia.Like her heroine Martha Gellhorn, she was a reluctant feminist, but her life itself was proof that she was the best of the best. I found it utterly gripping.

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