Pike brings her ca­reer best to the bat­tle­front in ‘A Pri­vate War’

Re­porter strug­gles with her ad­dic­tion to for­eign dan­ger

Pawtucket Times - - FILM - By ANN HOR­NA­DAY

For many years now, Rosamund Pike has el­e­vated nearly ev­ery­thing she’s in, of­ten from the side­lines, whether as the beau­ti­ful, good-hearted Jane Ben­net in “Pride & Prej­u­dice” or the sub­limely ditsy He­len in “An Ed­u­ca­tion.” Her work is so spe­cific, so subtly on point re­gard­less of its place­ment, that it reg­is­ters al­most sub­lim­i­nally. It’s only in the full­ness of time that the viewer re­al­izes it was Pike – not the nom­i­nal star – who was the best thing about the movie they’ve seen her in.

This isn’t to say that Pike hasn’t had her share of lead roles: She has de­liv­ered adept, alert per­for­mances in such high-pro­file projects as David Fincher’s “Gone Girl,” as well as in smaller roles - in “A United King­dom,” “Hos­tiles” and “Beirut,” for ex­am­ple. But “A Pri­vate War” is in an­other league al­to­gether.

As the real-life war cor­re­spon­dent Marie Colvin, Pike erases ev­ery trace of her del­i­cate nat­u­ral beauty to de­liver the tough­est, most un­com­pro­mis­ing and van­ity-free per­for­mance of her ca­reer. Fi­nally, one of our finest ac­tresses has been given ma­te­rial that calls on her to ut­terly trans­form her­self – vo­cally, phys­i­cally, seem­ingly ex­is­ten­tially – and prove how gifted she’s been all along.

“A Pri­vate War” be­gins in 2012, in the rub­ble of a build­ing that has just been bombed by Syr­ian forces in the em­bat­tled city of Homs. This is where Colvin would meet her death, but the film quickly back­tracks to ear­lier in her ca­reer, dur­ing which her fear­less, swash­buck­ling tem­per­a­ment draws her to the world’s most scorch­ing hot spots.

We see her lose an eye cov­er­ing the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, af­ter which she af­fects an ap­pro­pri­ately pi­rat­i­cal eye patch. Mean­while, she’s feted by her fel­low jour­nal­ists and liv­ing the high life in Lon­don, where she writes for the Sun­day Times. She chain-smokes, drinks far too much and em­barks on a se­ries of ill-fated love af­fairs, in­clud­ing one with her own ex-hus­band.

At one point dur­ing “A Pri­vate War,” Colvin in­vokes the World War II cor­re­spon­dent Martha Gell­horn, whose courage and in­tegrity she clearly wants to em­u­late. But the strength of the movie – which is based on a Van­ity Fair ar­ti­cle by Marie Bren­ner – is that it doesn’t un­crit­i­cally ac­cept the com­par­i­son. Colvin is pro­pelled by com­pas­sion and hu­man­ist con­cern, clearly; un­like her col­leagues who fo­cus solely on strat­egy and sta­tis­tics, she seeks to make “suf­fer­ing part of the record,” as she puts it. But she’s also driven by straightup com­pul­sion and an ad­dic­tive per­son­al­ity at con­stant odds with her per­sonal and pro­fes­sional judg­ment.

Di­rected by Matthew Heine­man – best known for the ur­gent, timely doc­u­men­taries “Car­tel Land” and “City of Ghosts” – “A Pri­vate War” is grat­i­fy­ingly un­fussy. Like its sub­ject, it gets to the point, tog­gling be­tween Colvin’s stints in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan with her well­heeled life in Eng­land. Eschew­ing fancy cam­era moves or other at­ten­tion-get­ting de­vices, Heine­man han­dles the tran­si­tions grace­fully, punc­tu­at­ing the ac­tion with shard­like mon­tages of flash­backs and anx­i­ety at­tacks that even­tu­ally send Colvin to re­hab for post-trau­matic stress.

It’s dur­ing this pas­sage that Pike de­liv­ers the most bravura mo­ment of “A Pri­vate War,” when she con­fesses her doubts and con­tra­dic­tions to her trusted pho­tog­ra­pher Paul Conroy, played in a gal­lantly self-ef­fac­ing per­for­mance by Jamie Dor­nan. It’s a quiet, un­forced mo­ment – in which Colvin’s self-mythol­o­giz­ing bravado mo­men­tar­ily gives way to gen­uine doubt – all the more pow­er­ful for be­ing so sim­ple and un­adorned.

“A Pri­vate War” suf­fers from one or two cliches: Colvin ac­tu­ally de­liv­ers a solemn re­minder that jour­nal­ism is “the rough draft of his­tory,” and a scene of one of her break­downs, when she wan­ders des­per­ately through her apart­ment and drinks vodka straight from the bot­tle, has the un­con­vinc­ing air of an im­prov ex­er­cise. Such brief mis­steps aside, “A Pri­vate War” gains cred­i­bil­ity and as­sur­ance as it plays, largely thanks to Pike’s thor­oughly in­hab­ited por­trayal, which in­cludes an an­gu­lar, lanky com­port­ment, a stiff, lop­ing gait and a spot-on Long Is­land drawl that melds eas­ily with the tapes of Colvin’s real-life in­ter­views that open and close the film.

At a time when the press is reg­u­larly li­beled the “en­emy of the peo­ple,” Heine­man and screen­writer Arash Amel re­mind the au­di­ence not just of the hu­man­ism that drives so many re­porters, but also the ex­treme dan­ger they put them­selves in to bring us the truth. Like “First Man” be­fore it, this is a movie that ex­am­ines its heroes not with a tone of vi­car­i­ous swag­ger or ab­ject wor­ship, but one that em­pha­sizes pain, sac­ri­fice and of­ten fa­tal stakes.

To its credit, “A Pri­vate War” doesn’t shy away from the more dis­turb­ing ques­tions raised by Colvin’s at­trac­tion to risk. As she seeks to banish her demons by en­gag­ing in in­creas­ingly reck­less be­hav­ior, it’s clear that she wasn’t just en­dan­ger­ing her­self, but the col­leagues she hec­tored to go along with her. By the time “A Pri­vate War” cir­cles back to Homs, the film has made a strong case for the enor­mity of the loss of Colvin and Remi Och­lik, the French pho­tog­ra­pher who died with her.

If view­ers find them­selves griev­ing and also ques­tion­ing Colvin’s judg­ment in that episode, it’s be­cause they’ve been given space to do so by a movie as tough and hon­est as its com­pli­cated pro­tag­o­nist.

Three and one-half stars. Rated R. Con­tains dis­turb­ing vi­o­lent im­ages, crude lan­guage through­out, brief sex­u­al­ity and nu­dity. 106 min­utes.

Paul Conroy/Av­i­ron Pic­tures

Rosamund Pike, left, con­veys Marie Colvin’s de­sires to make war’s “suf­fer­ing part of the record,” as well as her dan­ger­ous com­pul­sion to be close to it, in “A Pri­vate War.”

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