A Private War is a distant portrait of a badass
As I write these words, our President is holding a calamitous press conference where any time a reporter brings up a topic he doesn’t like, he shuts them down, calling them rude, terrible people who are purveyors of dreaded “fake news.” It’s offensive, disgusting, and dangerous. Regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum, I think we can all agree that blind vilification of the press is a distinctly un-American notion, one that calls to mind every single piece of dystopian literature in existence. Sure, sometimes the press can be pretty dishonest nowadays (yellow journalism has become the standard rather than the exception), but it’s not up to the president to make that call. It’s up to us, the consumer, to hold the press accountable, just as its up to the press to hold Mr. Trump and his lackeys accountable. The notion that refutation has been replaced with silencing tactics makes me sick to my stomach and deeply ashamed. This is why a movie like A Private War, which tells the story of a supremely brave journalist, is essential, even if it’s not quite the knockout it wants to be.
Never content to let a tragedy go unreported, journalist Marie Colvin died in 2012 while covering the Siege of Homs in Syria. While the blast that killed her wasn’t the first explosion to affect her health (a grenade attack in Sri Lanka in the early 2000s left her with just one functioning eye), it was the final one, and this is where Matthew Heineman’s thriller/biopic begins. “You’re never going to get where you’re going if you acknowledge fear,” says the courageous figure through voice over in the film’s opening moments. From here we travel back to the early 2000s, during the infancy of post-9/11 American meddling in the Middle East. The title cards all function as a countdown to the reporter’s final day (‘12 years until Homs’), presenting Colvin’s inevitable demise as a ticking time bomb, for lack of better term, as fate races against her self-destructive nature.
You see, Colvin lives hard. She doesn’t sleep. She can’t relax. She chain smokes. Her teeth are rotting out of her head. And unless she’s working, you’d better believe she’s drinking. When asked if she might have post-traumatic stress disorder she snappily retorts that soldiers get PTSD, not her. Her reverence for those embroiled in conflict clearly blinds her ability to recognize the effects that chasing stories in embattled areas have had on her. Her humility somehow masks her ego, and A Private War makes it very clear that she’s lost in a self-imposed abuse cycle. Her desire to highlight victims of atrocities causes her to be the most dangerous “ambulance chaser” on the planet. But these traumatic situations leave her seeking bigger, more dangerous targets, which in turn cause more mental and physical damage. She notes that in most conflicts, both sides are more than willing to obscure what the world sees, and it’s her duty to shine a light where the powers that be simply won’t. It’s heartbreaking to say the least, but it’s also inspiring that someone cares so much about spreading the truth that she’s willing to sacrifice everything to do so.
“I see it so you don’t have to,” she laments.
Rosamund Pike gives a committed and transformative performance, even going so far as to produce genuine mannerisms to that of someone missing an eye. She squints as she sizes up the world around her without the ability to perceive depth, even going so far as taking an extra second to line up the flame with her yet to be ignited cigarette. These choices highlight what we already know: Pike is the real deal, as chameleonic as Meryl Streep used to be, and infinitely easier to stomach. Unfortunately, Pike’s stellar performance is given no favors by the script. It’s not bad per se, but by the end of the film, I only understood Colvin so far as what I was repeatedly told by her or by the characters around her. Certainly she’s meant to be a bit closed off by design, but it doesn’t make for a compelling characterization. Colvin, as presented, reads as shallow, when it should be the film’s responsibility to try and open her up. I’d imagine a deeper characterization could be gleaned simply from reading her excellent articles... which calls into question the necessity of a film such as this one.
What we get is a prolonged montage of the different conflicts Colvin covered, amidst a smattering of scenes which show her making poor health/hygiene choices in the shadow of her deteriorating mental state. All of this should be very interesting (and for the most part it works in a functional sense), but it feels colorless. Beat by beat it is thoroughly detailed, but on the whole it fails to be contextualized in any meaningful way. Scene by scene, there’s a lot of filmmaking prowess on display (short of a few jarring, disorienting dips into handheld camera territory), but on the whole it just didn’t get me there.
But hey, Stanley “The Tooch” Tucci rolls through, which is never a bad thing.
A Private War opens in Philly theaters today.