London Film Festival: A Private War

Writers: Marie Brenner and Arash Amel

Director:  Matthew Heineman

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

One of the biggest wins of this year’s London Film Festival has been the increased number of intelligent female-led stories. Along with the enjoyable Can You Ever Forgive Me starring Melissa McCarthy as a literary fraudster, the programmers have also included A Private War as the Mayor of London Gala screening, about the wild determination of Marie Colvin the Sunday Times journalist who covered every major war zone in the last 20 years, determined to bring the human stories of devastation and loss to the attention of the world.

In 2001, Colvin loses an eye while working in Sri Lanka but refuses to retire from field journalism despite pleas from friends and her editor. In 2003 she heads to the Iraq / Turkey border to witness the discovery of a mass grave; in 2009 she’s in Afghanistan reporting on killing of civilians; in 2011 she’s in Libya meeting Gaddafi for the second time, and in 2012 Colvin heads to Syria to report on the government’s bombing of its own people. But all of this starts to take its toll on Colvin’s mental health as she pushes herself to greater extremes.

Documentary-maker Matthew Heineman has made a hugely emotive and engrossing film that turns the spotlight firmly back on Colvin and the psychology of a journalist who never felt she had heard or seen enough. Divided into the chapters described above, each segment builds a picture of Colvin’s determined personality along with the incredible danger she put herself and her team in to get the story.

Heineman isn’t too sentimental about his subject, and while the audience is there to celebrate Colvin’s bravery and compassion for the thousands of dispossessed and embattled people her work spoke for, Heineman also questions both the hard-headedness of her approach and the refusal to accept how greatly the cumulative experience of modern warfare had affected her. There is an inevitability to this fascinating character study which explores the increased recklessness and poor judgement that led to an addiction to working in some of the hardest places in the world.

A Private War is a difficult watch, a film that never softens the brutality of Colvin’s experiences and the endless suffering she encountered across decades of warfare in the Middle East. As the journalist would wish, Heineman uses this as an opportunity to show the audience some of the stories she wrote as grief-stricken relatives stand-by as bodies are unearthed, children die, and civilian homes are shelled for weeks on end. These scenes are sensitively included not just as context for Colvin’s biography but to illustrate the real cost of modern warfare and why it mattered so much to her.

It is a film that handles scenes of conflict very well but is less comfortable with Colvin’s UK-based life where clunky dialogue and exposition plague sections set in a psychiatric hospital where Colvin awkwardly blurts out her family history, and in a variety of fairly shallow conversations with the somewhat characterless variety of people who share her life.

Some well-respected actors are given little to do in a number of support roles including Greg Wise as Colvin’s husband for a couple of years before being thrown-over for Stanley Tucci’s Tony Shaw, a man she meets at a party who is never explained. Likewise, Jamie Dornan as Liverpudlian photographer Paul Conroy gets very little dialogue but is a weather vane for the audience, his expressions telling us when Colvin has gone too far.

The most enduring relationship Colvin has is with her editor at The Sunday Times, Sean Ryan who tries repeatedly to pull her back from the brink. The wonderful Tom Hollander doesn’t get nearly enough screen-time but perfectly navigates the difficult role of hungry newspaper man eager to have the front-page story and Colvin’s friend who makes an impassioned intervention in the hope of saving her.

Rosamund Pike has embarked on a whole new direction as an actor in recent years, testament to the fact that good parts are rarely offered to women at the start of their careers. Since Gone Girl where she broke free of the Hollywood machine and allowed us to see her differently, her work has been complex, egoless and diverse.

As Colvin she is superb, not only capturing the very particular low American tone but charting the difficult development of a world-class journalist over 11 years, increasingly affected by her work. There is a darkness in Pike’s performance that drives her Colvin to go beyond the limits of anybody else, balanced with a persistent need to see and report as much as she can, a duty to tell the world that ultimately drives her over the edge in several ways. An Oscar nomination is highly likely.

A Private War is an intense and important film, one that reminds us not only that every day journalists are putting themselves in great danger to report the truth as Mayor of London Sadiq Khan explained at its premiere, but also, sadly, that little changed in the decade this movie covers, that maybe the world is just getting worse and worse. Go and see this film but afterwards take a walk by yourself or sit in a quiet room because you will need a bit of time to reflect.

Release Date:  UK Release TBC 

Review Overview

The Reviews Hub Score

Intense and important

The Reviews Hub

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