Applauded for his intrepid commitment to attaining and sharing firsthand versions of the truth, filmmaker Matthew Heineman came into the foreground of the documentary community upon the release of his third feature, 2015’s “Cartel Land.” Voluntarily putting himself in harm’s way, he used his privilege as a white American man to chronicle the Mexican Drug War, often with bullets raining down on him and his camera.
Heineman then professionally transformed himself into a cross between a war correspondent and a lyrical storyteller, an amalgamation that can just as well apply to Marie Colvin, the award-winning journalist for London’s Sunday Times tasked with covering some of the most gruesome international conflicts of the last 30 years. She did so with unshakable resolve, bearing the personal cost of trauma most of us will never know.
Playing out as more of a formally daring conversation between two kindred spirits (director and subject) than a reverential biopic with all the Oscar-bait fixings, Heineman’s fiction debut “A Private War” is an episodic account of Colvin’s greatest (and most dangerous) hits since she lost sight in her left eye while on duty during the Sri Lankan Civil War in 2001.
Her mythical persona has been deftly transposed to the screen from a Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner titled “Marie Colvin’s Private War.” Adapted by eclectic screenwriter Arash Amel (“Grace of Monaco”), the result is a stunningly moving, yet never mawkish, dissection of Colvin’s self-aware motivations, irrevocable positions, flawed interpersonal skills, and narrative ability to make people stop and care about whatever story was compelling her to risk her life.
“In covering war, can we really make a difference?” asks Colvin (played by Rosamund Pike) late in the film. It’s a question so heavy with responsibility that it would be unjust to demand a clear answer from her, but Colvin operated as if her coverage was in fact the only concrete action she could take to enact change. Pike, giving the kind of transformative performance that puts her squarely in the awards-season conversation, manifests Colvin’s brazen outspokenness with candor, and her irreparable brokenness via a cocktail of rage and subdued anxiety.
Wearing an eye patch with outward confidence while vulnerably chasing the desire to feel attractive behind closed doors, the actress embodies the internal battle of a woman tormented by what she’s witnessed and the impotence of being unable to prevent it. Pike is doing much more than regulating her voice to replicate Colvin’s tone; she takes hammer and chisel to her emotional armor, forged from the accumulated experiences Colvin must suppress in order to remain functional. A scene recreating the reporter’s call with Anderson Cooper live from a hideout in Homs, Syria, ranks amongst the most punch-in-the-gut moments of her portrayal.
For all its brilliance, Pike’s work here is not unprecedented in her career; it’s “Fifty Shades of Grey” star Jamie Dornan who amazes with his take on photographer Paul Conroy, who would become one of Colvin’s closest collaborators beginning in the early 2000s. It’s not his handsomely rugged looks he’s selling this time, but an unassuming turn as a sidekick and as an artist working through fear to match Colvin’s words with his images reflecting human suffering. For audiences who missed the actor’s chilling turn as a serial killer on “The Fall,” Dornan’s powerful moments of raw pain will be a real revelation.
The cast’s unseen co-star is three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson’s camera, which acts as Heineman’s proxy thanks to the immediate and dynamic visual language used to maneuver it. At times we appear to be witnessing another individual’s point of view, when the device moves as if it were a journalist hiding inside a car or behind buildings, also risking life and limb to record these moments of tension.
Fittingly, this is a piece of immersive cinema edited (by Nick Fenton, “American Animals”) for psychological impact as opposed to keeping to a precise timeline. However, the plot does work in a linear manner, leading up to a fateful event that would serve as revelatory proof of Bashar al-Assad’s attacks on civilians.
Colvin’s inner state is assembled from brief flashbacks, which are effective if not inventive, culminating in a nightmarish sequence that sees her walking through a labyrinth of horrors engraved in her psyche from a lifetime of being confronted with the worst of humanity. Heineman is not playing it safe here, and that’s not only commendable but also necessary to offer a different type of tribute to such a fascinating and conflicted character.
It’s a testament to Heineman’s penchant for reality that his first foray outside the non-fiction world is based on the true life of a figure who shares his concern for the loss of human life in the geopolitical games that nations play daily. Perhaps it was only by using a controlled fictional setting that the audacious director could confront his own understanding of what compels a person to do what he and Colvin do.
Colvin constantly acknowledged her privilege and was conscious of her potential to be perceived as a white savior with self-aggrandizing ideas. Heineman seems to be undergoing the same ruthless self-examination vicariously with this affecting project.