There are three jobs that few journalists do, but nearly all journalists revere. Two of them have recently been the subject of critically acclaimed blockbuster films. Spotlight depicted local investigative reporting at its finest, and The Post showed journalists exposing the U.S. governments lies and misdeeds.
A Private War, out in limited release this week, aims to complete the trio with its portrayal of war reporting, as personified by the renowned correspondent Marie Colvin. Based on the 2012 Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner, A Private War shows the impact of Colvins fearless work documenting the horrors of war, as well as the terrible toll it took on her—culminating in her death in Syria, in 2012, apparently a targeted killing by the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
There have been several excellent documentaries about war reporting, but A Private War is one of the few feature-film treatments, with Rosamund Pike delivering an Oscar-worthy performance as the talented but tormented Colvin. Many of the most memorable scenes are drawn from Brenners V.F. story—Colvin sneaking into the besieged Syrian city of Homs through a secret tunnel, Colvin fighting for her life in a Sri Lankan hospital after losing an eye to a grenade attack.
Initially, however, Brenner doubted that the film adaptation of her article would ever become a reality. The first time she met director Matthew Heineman, she said, “He showed up at my house wearing a backpack, and he was 31 years old.” Yes, he had directed the Oscar-nominated documentary Cartel Land, which Brenner had seen and found remarkable—but he had never even been on a movie set before. “I thought, This is never going to get made,” Brenner recalled.
But once she got to know Heineman, her skepticism vanished. “Matt Heineman understood from the inside out who Marie was and what drove her,” Brenner said. “He was determined to get the authenticity of her experience.” Brenner had hundreds of pages of interview transcripts from her reporting, but they couldnt be shared electronically because some of the material was off the record. So she and Heineman pored over the transcripts together; he would circle details and dramatic moments to share with screenwriter Arash Amel.
Brenners experience with Heineman, she said, reminded her of another director who adapted one of her V.F. articles for the screen: Michael Mann, whose 1999 thriller The Insider was based on Brenners profile of big-tobacco whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand. “Michael Mann uses the term hyper-reality to describe moviemaking,” she said. “The directors obsession marries in some magical, mysterious way with the elements of a character, the drama that drives them.”
Thats what happened with Heineman and Colvin, Brenner said: “He had a vision of Marie and what her world was. One of the first things he said to me was, I dont want to make a conventional biopic.”
Accordingly, A Private War flouts many of the norms of the biopic genre. We dont see Colvin growing up or coming of age. We dont get the usual arc of path to success, then debilitating setback, then triumphant comeback.
Instead, the film focuses on Colvins struggle—ultimately a futile one—to pursue her calling without letting it consume her. Colvin was a complex figure. “She had this exuberant exhilaration for reporting and a need to tell stories of those suffering, but she also had this amazing capacity for fun and liveliness,” said Brenner. “Shed be the one running around with a parrot on her shoulder or coming to your door with three pairs of shoes shed just found for you.”
A Private War captures that complexity by showing Colvins many sides: fearless yet vulnerable, idealistic yet hard-bitten, serious yet witty, even in the direst situations. When she and photographer Paul Conroy (played by Jamie Dornan) are holed up in Syria, he asks about the fancy La Perla bra she wears in war zones. “If someone pulls my corpse from the rubble, I want them to be impressed,” Pike as Colvin explains with a grin.
Of course, A Private War isnt simply the story of one fascinating individual. Like The Post and Spotlight, its a demonstration of journalisms power and purpose. Colvins reporting (for Londons Sunday Times) exposed war crimes that the world might never have discovered otherwise. It drew attention to the suffering of innocents. It quite literally saved lives—most notably in East Timor in 1999, when she refused to leave a besieged compound where more than 1,000 civilians were facing annihilation at the hands of a genocidal militia.
Colvins story is also a reminder of how imperiled the press is today—not just by bombs in war zones (and occasionally in media organizations mail rooms) but also by economic pressures. Few news outlets are willing to take on the expense, and the risk, of sending journalists to cover the wars raging in places like Syria, where, as the closing titles of A Private War state, 500,000 civilians have been killed since Colvins death in 2012.
Were she alive today, Colvin would likely be reporting from Yemen, where years of war have inflicted the worlds worst humanitarian crisis. The murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has recently brought attention to the war, but it may soon recede from the public consciousness even as a horrific famine looms. This was Marie Colvins greatest fear—that the reporting she and other war correspondents did would not make a difference. But as Pike as Colvin says in the film, “I must have enough faith in humanity to think it will.”
Matthew Pressman is an assistant professor of journalism at Seton Hall University and author of the new book On Press: The Liberal Values That Shaped the News. He worked at Vanity Fair from 2003-2011 and assisted Marie Brenner on several of her articles.
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