Movies: Jour­nal­ist shed light on war zones

A Pri­vate War tells the story of war cor­re­spon­dent who shed light on the world’s con­flict zones

Times Colonist - - Life - RAFER GUZ­MAN

She was a well-known name in Eng­land, a war cor­re­spon­dent for The Sun­day Times with a string of by­lines from global con­flict zones and the added cred­i­bil­ity of a black eye patch, the re­sult of Sri Lankan shrap­nel that blinded her left eye. Yet it wasn’t un­til 2012, when she was killed while re­port­ing on the siege of Homs in Syria, that many Amer­i­cans first heard of Marie Colvin, who grew up in East Nor­wich, New York, grad­u­ated from Oys­ter Bay High School and found her call­ing at Yale, where she wrote for the col­lege news­pa­per.

Her fu­neral in Oys­ter Bay drew a crowd of 200, in­clud­ing Ru­pert Mur­doch, the Times’ owner, who called her “the great­est war cor­re­spon­dent we’ve had” and “prob­a­bly the best in the world.”

Six years af­ter her death, Colvin is back in the spot­light as the sub­ject of a fea­ture film, a documentary and a book. A Pri­vate War, star­ring Rosamund Pike as Colvin and Jamie Dor­nan as her long­time pho­tog­ra­pher, Paul Con­roy, has just opened in Vic­to­ria. Also ar­riv­ing in the­atres Fri­day is Un­der the Wire, a documentary based on Con­roy’s mem­oir about his fi­nal as­sign­ment with Colvin. In Ex­tremis, a bi­og­ra­phy of Colvin by her fel­low jour­nal­ist Lind­sey Hil­sum, was avail­able in book­stores Nov. 6. This year also marks the sixth an­niver­sary of Stony Brook Univer­sity’s Marie Colvin Cen­ter for In­ter­na­tional Re­port­ing, founded with help from her fam­ily.

If the pub­lic takes away any­thing from the rush of sto­ries and re­mem­brances of Colvin, it should be “the im­por­tance of a strong and free press,” said her youngest sib­ling, Cath­leen Colvin, 53, a lawyer liv­ing in Oys­ter Bay. “La­belling jour­nal­ists the en­emy of the peo­ple, that res­onates through­out the world. It al­lows regimes to feel that they can act with im­punity,” she says. “Marie knew that she was fac­ing grave dan­ger go­ing into Homs, but she did it be­cause it was im­por­tant. And she was will­ing to risk her life for that, and give that story to us.”

A Pri­vate War, writ­ten by Arash Amel from a Van­ity Fair ar­ti­cle by Marie Bren­ner, paints a pic­ture of a sin­gle-minded jour­nal­ist but a com­pli­cated woman. Marie Colvin’s work­place was the world’s lat­est trou­ble-spot — Syria, Libya, Sri Lanka — but home was com­fort­able, cos­mopoli­tan Lon­don. In the film, Colvin faces life-or-death sit­u­a­tions with aplomb, as when she flashes her gym card to con­vince sev­eral armed Iraqis that she’s a med­i­cal worker, but of­ten uses al­co­hol to keep me­mories of war­time hor­rors at bay.

“I didn’t know her per­son­ally but I felt a huge con­nec­tion to her,” says Matthew Heine­man, who makes his fea­ture-direct­ing de­but with A Pri­vate War. Heine­man’s past films in­clude the doc­u­men­taries Car­tel Land, about Mex­ico’s drug wars, and City of Ghosts, about the strug­gles of a Syr­ian me­dia ac­tivist group. “I’d also been in sketchy sit­u­a­tions and felt what that felt like, and also the bizarreness of com­ing home to New York.

“From the mo­ment I read a draft script, I knew this was the film I wanted to make.”

Pike, a na­tive Lon­doner who knew of Colvin only as a Sun­day Times reader, says she learned about Heine­man’s film from a col­league and lob­bied the di­rec­tor for the star­ring role. “I just had a com­pul­sion, I don’t know why,” says Pike, whose cred­its in­clude Gone Girl and An Ed­u­ca­tion. Pike de­scribes the char­ac­ter of Colvin as a com­bi­na­tion of “mas­culin­ity and fem­i­nin­ity, deeply sexy, pow­er­ful and not scared of power.”

Pike adds: “And I think she was some­one who had a higher pur­pose.”

Though Colvin was a print jour­nal­ist, she did make a num­ber of tele­vi­sion ap­pear­ances that Pike watched to get a sense of Colvin’s voice and body lan­guage. “I could see how the eye af­fected her depth per­cep­tion, how she swept the ground be­fore­hand as she walked,” Pike says.

Colvin’s fam­ily chose not to par­tic­i­pate in the film as a way to pro­tect their pri­vacy, ac­cord­ing to Cath­leen, though she has seen the film and of­fers praise for Pike’s per­for­mance. “She re­ally cap­tured Marie, her ges­tures and voice,” Cath­leen says. “It was dif­fi­cult to watch; it’s pretty emo­tional for me.”

Hil­sum, the in­ter­na­tional ed­i­tor for Eng­land’s Chan­nel 4 News and the au­thor of In Ex­tremis, de­scribes Marie Colvin as a wel­come com­pan­ion in dire sit­u­a­tions.

The two first bonded, Hil­sum says, dur­ing a 1998 flight out of Dji­bouti dur­ing the Ethiopi­anEritrean war. “There were these enor­mous Ukrainian pi­lots who were fly­ing bare-chested,” she re­calls.

“All the tele­vi­sion gear just slid down the aisle. And at this point, Marie and I were so con­vinced we were go­ing to die that we just couldn’t stop laugh­ing.”

Con­roy re­calls meet­ing his fu­ture col­lab­o­ra­tor in North­east­ern Syria in 2003, shortly af­ter he had tried to cross into Iraq over the Ti­gris river on a boat made of in­ner tubes. The at­tempt failed and drew un­wanted at­ten­tion to the press corps, leav­ing Con­roy friend­less — ex­cept, he says, for Colvin.

“I was just sit­ting at the bar by my­self,” he re­calls. “The door opened, Marie walked in and she said: ‘Who is the Boat Man?’ ” A cou­ple of whiskeys later, Con­roy says, the two had formed what would be­come a nearly decade­long part­ner­ship.

In the be­sieged Syr­ian city of Homs, Colvin and Con­roy re­ported on civil­ians who were un­der at­tack by Syr­ian forces. In the shelling, Colvin and a French pho­tog­ra­pher, Remi Och­lik, were killed.

In 2016, Colvin’s fam­ily filed a wrong­ful-death law­suit against the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment, charg­ing that of­fi­cials had tar­geted Marie as part of an ef­fort to si­lence jour­nal­ists. “It’s the truth that cost Marie her life,” says Con­roy. Marie’s story, he adds, is a re­minder “that jour­nal­ism is alive and still be­ing prac­tised in the truest sense it can be.”


Rosamund Pike stars as Amer­i­can war cor­re­spon­dent Marie Colvin in A Pri­vate War. Colvin was killed in 2012 while re­port­ing on the Syr­ian con­flict.

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