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
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.