To launch yourself into a career as a war correspondent takes a specific mindset, one that director Matthew Heinemen almost captures in his biopic of multiple award-winning journalist Marie Colvin. It’s Heinemen’s first feature release, following his successful 2013 documentary Cartel Land, which detailed the “war on drugs” in the USA. A Private War has phenomenal subject matter, ranging from conflicts in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, right up to the plight of Syrian rebels, but it cannot escape hollow characterisation, and an exhaustive pace.
The film opens with an aerial shot of a decimated tower block in Homs, Syria backed by audio of the real Marie Colvin stating why she got into journalism, and her goals with the medium. Shortly after this we are shown Rosamund Pike’s Colvin, who vocally is indistinguishable, butting heads with Sunday Times editor Sean (Tom Hollander) about covering conflict in Palestine as opposed to unreported conflict in Sri Lanka. Very quickly after this, the action moves to Sri Lanka where we learn how Colvin got her signature eye patch, following a brutal ambush of Tamil Tiger soldiers by the Sri Lankan government. This sets the film up for its main theme, of Marie’s struggle with PTSD following the loss of her left eye. However, bar two mildly hallucinatory sequences in which her experiences/surreal threats of violence and a stint in a psychiatric intuition, it’s a topic that is left relatively untouched.
Instead, the film seems more interested in globetrotting to numerous locales and introducing side characters who range from minor importance, to having approximately 5 lines of dialogue. Stanley Tucci’s character Charlie, who becomes Colvin’s partner in the second half honestly may as well have not been in the film. The only exception to this rule of flyby secondary characters comes with Jamie Dornan’s photojournalist Paul Conroy, who acted as right-hand man to Colvin from 2001 until 2012. Dornan delivers a strong emotional performance, creating some moments of incidental chemistry alongside Pike. Their relationship feels natural, both playing off each other well whether offering reassurance or rebuttals to decisions. More exploration of this alongside Marie Colvin’s struggle with mental illness would have made a fascinating character study, over what is presented here.
The script in general lacks nuance, detracting from a very technically impressive and well-acted film. Cinematographer Robert Richardson, who has worked on multiple Tarantino and Scorsese projects, frames the chaos of war reporting and Colvin’s day to day life impeccably. There’s a fluidity to most shots as he mimics the film’s erratic pace that works in the film’s favour, creating a very dynamic nature. The script similarly looks to achieve this, by explicitly stating a character’s intentions or emotive states in place of any implicit development. A trait which seriously hinders audience investment in the development of the two leads and simultaneously neuters any suspense.
A Private War had the potential to be fantastic, given the current subject matter and caustic choice of character it studied. However, a myriad of pacing issues and poor scripting prevent it from achieving its true potential. Made especially disappointing given that both Rosamund Pike and Jamie Dorman obviously have a strong connection to their real-world counterparts, and how visually well realised the film is.