Being a journalist in a war zone used to ensure a measure of safety. Victims of conflict often viewed correspondents as messengers who could tell the world about their plight; combatants knew the grave repercussions of harming unarmed news crews. No longer. As social media has become the modern-day medium for historys first draft, the line has blurred between seasoned correspondents and “citizen journalists.” Increasingly, those who attempt to cover conflict have become targets themselves. This hard truth became all too real with the death of Marie Colvin, targeted by Syrian-government troops seven years ago. As a feature film about Colvin, A Private War, is set to open in November, Marie Brenner writes about the legendary war reporter.
A few days after Marie Colvin died, I arrived in London to write about her life for Vanity Fair. I spent hours by photographer Paul Conroys bed at the hospital where he was recovering from the explosions that had killed her and almost cost him his leg. One of the first stories he told me took place outside Sirte, during the Libyan civil war, where he and Colvin had been trapped for days. Minutes from deadline, in a speeding car heading for the border, there wasnt a whisper of power they could use to transmit Maries copy from her laptop. The driver screamed as Conroy crawled onto the back of the car with a booster, sand blowing in his eyes. Marie hit Send. Then Paul and Marie screamed with relief as the car streaked down the highway. “I have never seen journalists who worked this way,” the driver told them. “Well, you have never worked with The Sunday Times,” Marie yelled.
In January of this year, the newsroom of The Sunday Times (U.K.) came into full view when I visited the set of the film A Private War—director Matt Heinemans cinematic rendering of the eponymous piece I wrote for Vanity Fair in 2012. It will be released this month and stars Rosamund Pike as Colvin. On the day I visited, a pivotal scene was being filmed: Colvin was determined to get herself assigned to Sri Lanka in April of 2001 to cover a yet unreported situation in which refugees were under siege by government forces. She had a shouting match with her editor in the meticulously re-created newsroom. The afternoon I spent on set was unnerving, as I knew what was coming for Colvin once she left the safety of that space. She would go to Sri Lanka and lose sight in one eye due to a grenade thrown at her after announcing she was a reporter and wear an eye patch for the rest of her life.
Heineman, just 34, has been nominated for an Academy Award for his documentary Cartel Land, but has never made a narrative feature film. He has, however, directed City of Ghosts, detailing the lives of several of Syrias citizen reporters. He was galvanized by Colvins career and for three years has worked tirelessly to bring her life story to the screen; no easy feat. Colvin was a paradox—a fount of exuberance with devoted friends whom she would regale with stories from the field, shaped into performances that camouflaged the raw truth. Colvins sangfroid and wit fit beautifully in London media and political circles, but there was a price: PTSD, nightmares, alcoholism. She was not interested in the strategy of war but rather in the real human dramas of those who have suffered the consequences. Marie Colvin had a mission that she turned into a vocation: to go to the most violent places on earth and bear witness to what man does to man, no matter the personal toll.
Adapted from A Private War, by Marie Brenner, to be published October 23, 2018, by Simon & Schuster. Copyright 2018, Marie Brenner. All rights reserved.
Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.