Rosamund Pike excels in war correspondent drama
There’s no movie blather like journalism movie blather.
Even if you’re not an officially designated enemy of the people, you can usually tell when a fact-based but fiction-forward biopic about investigative reporters or a war correspondent settles for shortcuts, speech-y overstatement and, yes, fake news. They’re not all “Spotlight,” in other words, though truth hardly counts for everything in the movies. If it did, nobody could enjoy newspaper fables as varied as “Blessed Event” (1932), “Park Row” (1952), “Between the Lines” (1977) and the most exuberant bits, in and among the blather, in last year’s “The Post.”
The new film “A Private War” ranks higher than most, in the truth department and in cinematic storytelling. Whatever your personal interest or disinterest in Sunday Times reporter Marie Colvin’s line of work, the way she did it — and the bloody global conflicts she ran toward, full gallop — makes for a tense, engrossing account.
Colvin was killed in Syria in 2012 while covering the Assad regime’s slaughter of its own people; Rosamund Pike, best known in America as the heartless heart of “Gone Girl,” portrays Colvin. The casting isn’t ideal; the actress carries trace elements of royalty with her everywhere she goes. Yet this is Pike’s best work on screen outside British period pieces. Documentary-trained director Matthew Heineman’s narrative feature debut leans into the mess and complication of Colvin’s life and away, thank God, from sainthood.
The movie’s based on the MPAA rating: R (for disturbing violent images, language throughout, and brief sexuality/nudity) Running time: 1:46 2012 Vanity Fair feature “Marie Colvin’s Private War” by Marie Brenner, though screenwriter Arash Amel pulls from other sources too. More or less chronologically Amel follows the last 12 years in the life of the Long Island, N.Y.-raised London transplant, from the Sri Lanka civil war assignment that cost her a left eye (she wore a patch thereafter) to the U.S.-led Iraq invasion to Libya (she was propositioned, relentlessly, by Moammar Gadhafi) to Afghanistan and finally, fatefully, to Syria.
Photographer Paul Conroy worked and traveled with Colvin through much of this. Jamie Dornan (“Fifty Shades of Grey”) plays him as a loyal colleague perpetually at risk. Director Heineman can’t do much about the hoarier lines, as when Tom Hollander (playing Colvin’s editor) comforts his rattled, disillusioned war reporter back in London: “If you lose your conviction, then what hope do the rest of us have?”
To be sure, newspaper people talk like that sometimes. Colvin once said: “How do I keep my craft alive in a world that doesn’t value it?” The movie, and Pike’s performance, reflects that itchy side of Colvin’s personality, along with her alcoholism and PTSD. We’re with her, and with photographer Conroy, when a mass grave is excavated, and the grieving of villagers becomes a collective wail of mourning. Her “act” back home, if it was an act, was part tough cookie, part reckless, highflying hobnobber, a way of keeping her demons at bay.
“A Private War” doesn’t invent much, though the script (by necessity in a movie under two hours) eliminates a marriage here, a resume item there. Pike’s unblinking, emphatic quality has its limitations, but by the film’s midpoint she rolls with every scene. Fierce and alert, she holds the screen. Heineman made a very shrewd decision not to ennoble this woman, or lard “A Private War” with starry close-ups. It’s about an on-the-ground reporter who, in her words, simply wanted to make the casualties of war “part of the record.” Showing us what that meant is enough.
The late Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin (Rosamund Pike) is the subject of “A Private War.”