Is it possible to dramatize the life of a war correspondent without romanticizing it? Or to do so without diminishing the sufferings of the people being covered? “A Private War” explicitly takes on this task and, to a surprising measure, succeeds, both because of and despite its central performance.
Certainly, Marie Colvin is a figure ready-made for mythification: An American-born reporter working for Britain’s Sunday Times from 1985 onward, she covered almost every major conflict in every major war zone. She lost an eye in Sri Lanka in 2001 and subsequently wore an eye-patch that only gilded the legend. She lost her life in Syria, during the 2012 siege of Homs; Colvin was reporting on the families being starved and bombed by Assad when she was killed by one of the dictator’s shells.
That’s hardly a spoiler. “A Private War” dispenses with suspense from the outset, with titles that tick-tock us forward from the turn of the millennium, counting down the years toward Colvin’s fatal assignment. This is only one way that director Matthew Heineman tries to turn the genre and its stereotypes on their head. The real business of his movie is to hold in sharp mutual focus the humanity of the individuals being reported on and the damage to the soul of the person doing the reporting.
It’s a tricky job made easier by the presence of Rosamund Pike as Colvin. The London-born actress is tall, blonde, and no-nonsense, able to play sympathetic or treacherous or — as in “Gone Girl,” her best-known film in the States — both. As Colvin, Pike doesn’t do the de-glamorization thing so much as she matches the look and the clothes before diving under Colvin’s skin.
The film opens with the Sri Lankan incident that robbed Colvin of her left eye — immediately after which she delivered a 3,000-word article on deadline — then deploys to Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria. Behind her is Kosovo and East Timor, where Colvin rescued 1,500 women and children. We are meeting her as she’s fighting burnout and living from assignment to assignment, cigarette to cigarette, drink to drink.
“A Private War” dutifully looks in on Colvin’s friends and bosses in London, with Tom Hollander as her solicitous editor, Niki Amuka-Bird as a worried colleague, Stanley Tucci as a sweetly brusque businessman with whom Colvin had her final relationship. But Colvin’s only comfortable in the field, and so is the movie.
So, for that matter, is director Heineman, himself one of the more fearless documentary filmmakers out there (see last year’s award-winning “City of Ghosts,” about Syrian activists on the run from ISIS, or “Cartel Land,” 2015, about the Mexican drug industry). “A Private War” is his first narrative feature, and you can feel him fighting hard to keep it honest.
“Honest,” in this context, means giving face-time and camera attention to the people Colvin traveled with and spent her career reporting on: translators, guides, soldiers with blank faces and loaded guns, men and women at the wrong end of a war. They’re given names, the actors are given credits.
In a scene in a makeshift Syrian hospital, staffed by a veterinarian who’s the only doctor around, a bleeding boy is brought in and Heineman’s camera hovers around the father (Mohammad Tawfiq). Another movie might have dressed him up in ethnic outerwear and staged the scene as heart-tugging Third World exotica. In “A Private World,” the man is dressed as a lot of people everywhere are — like he just came in from shopping at Costco, basically — and his implacable grief is yours and mine.
But the director also has to record his life of a secular saint, and this “A Private War” achieves — mostly — by relying on Pike’s Colvin to lift us over the stereotypes. We come to admire the reporter’s fearlessness and wit, and the flinty directness with which she interviews a slick and sleazy Colonel Muammar Gaddafi (Raad Rawi) weeks before his death at the hands of his people. And while were also privy to her fears of aging and death, the PTSD that stalked her as surely as it did the soldiers and refugees she wrote about, both director and actress seem to suggest by their very reticence that all this is slightly beside the point, even if it’s something you have to acknowledge.
A reporter is never the story — the story is the story. But if looking at the reporter helps you see the story, and the human beings the story is about, then the effort may be worth it. “A Private War” is worth it.
A PRIVATE WAR
Directed by Matthew Heineman. Written by Aerash Amel, based on a magazine article by Marie Brenner. Starring Rosamund Pike, Jamie Dornan, Tom Hollander, Stanley Tucci. At Boston Common, Kendall Square. 106 minutes. R (disturbing violent images, language throughout, brief sexuality/nudity).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.