A Private War (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): Driven to front line

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“A Private War”, the first feature film directed by documentary filmmaker Matthew Heineman, looks into the life and career of Marie Colvin (1956-2012), an American journalist who devoted herself to her risky jobs till her unfortunate death in 2012. While showing us several career highpoints during her last 11 years, the movie vividly conveys to us the enormous personal cost she paid for her professional belief and integrity, and it eventually comes to us as a harrowing and touching portrayal of one intrepid war correspondent to remember.

After the opening scene overlooking the ruins of Homs, Syria in 2012, the movie moves back to 2001, when Colvin (Rosamund Pike) is about to go to Sri Lanka for covering the ongoing conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Resistance Movement. Despite the initial objection of her editor Sean Ryan (Tom Hollander), she insists that she should go there because people need to know more about what is going on in Sri Lanka, and she surely does her job well once she gets there, though she subsequently gets injured permanently in her left eye because of one sudden attack from the Sri Lankan government.

After going back to London and then getting her article published, Colvin draws more attention and admiration, but she finds herself often haunted by what she has witnessed from many conflict zones, and there later comes an unforgettable moment when she is covering the Iraq War in 2003 along with a British photographer named Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan). In a certain conflict area outside Baghdad, they watch the exhumation of the remains of hundreds of people killed under the Saddam Hussein regime, and they cannot help but deeply affected by the painfully human responses of local people while calmly and professionally observing and recording the exhumation process.

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Around that point, Ryan and other people close to Colvin come to notice how unstable and anxious she has become. It is apparent that she has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as going through many terrible and perilous moments on front lines, and she tries to dull her psychological pains with lots of alcohol, but there eventually comes a point where she comes to admit that she does have a problem and then goes to a rest home for recuperation.

Several years later, Colvin goes to Afghanistan for reporting on its ongoing conflict, and we get another harrowing moment when she and Conroy come across the aftermath of an improvised explosive device (IED) attack. She subsequently goes to Libya along with Conroy and many other war correspondents as the country is being shaken by a civil war induced by the Arab Spring in 2011, and she does not step back at all even when she in the middle of a tumultuous battleground with lots of bullets flying in the air.

As enduring more dangers and perils as required by her profession, Colvin comes to feel more psychological pain and exhaustion than before, but she still finds herself driven by her fierce professionalism as usual. While she gets some comfort from her new lover, she is still eager to go to another conflict zone to be covered by her, and she does not hesitate at all when a civil war in Syria is getting worse in 2012.

During its inevitable last act depicting the siege of Homs in 2012, the movie gives us a number of frightening and devastating moments. While we see many buildings totally demolished by the constant attacks from the Syrian government, we also watch numerous civilians in utter fear and despair without any hope, and the sense of doom on the screen is palpable to say the least.

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While frankly admitting that this is the worst conflict she has ever experienced during her career, Colvin does not flinch at all. When she has a live interview with Anderson Cooper at one point later in the story, she makes a clear point on not only what is going on in Syria but also why she went there despite overwhelming danger, and that moving moment will make you reflect on many brave journalists around the world willingly risking their life for doing their job even at this point.

It surely helps that the movie is supported well by another impressive acting turn from Rosamund Pike, who has been more prominent during recent years thanks to her Oscar-nominated turn in “Gone Girl” (2014). As ably balancing her performance between her character’s strong determination and aching vulnerability, Pike steadily holds the center, and the other notable cast members in the film including Tom Hollader, Jamie Dornan, and Stanley Tucci fill their respective spots around her as much as required.

Overall, “A Private War”, which is adapted by Arash Amel from the 2012 Vanity Fair article “Marie Colvin’s Private War” by Marie Brenner, is a solid feature film debut by Heineman, who previously made several acclaimed documentaries including “Cartel Land” (2015) and “City of Ghosts” (2017). He and his cast and crew bring considerable realism and verisimilitude to the film, and the result is an admirable biographical drama movie which presents its human subject with honesty and respect. Considering how much good journalism has been threatened during recent years, the movie is definitely something worthwhile to watch, and you will certainly not forget Colvin and her brave professionalism after it is over.

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