A month after the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the recently released film “A Private War” could not be more relevant today. The film pays tribute to Marie Colvin, the Sunday Times correspondent who was killed in Homs, Syria in 2012. Directed by documentary filmmaker Matthew Heineman, his first feature film is not just a homage to Marie, but to journalism as well.
British actress Rosamund Pike plays the leading role of Colvin, who was killed by Syrian government bombardment while reporting from under siege, along with French photojournalist Rémi Ochlik. The film is an adaption of a 2012 Vanity Fair article, which chronicled Colvin’s phenomenal career and tumultuous life.
At one point, Marie says: “I hate being in a war zone. But I also feel compelled to see it for myself,”
Only minutes pass before viewers realise this film is not just about Colvin - it is also about the costs of war. The camera goes straight to a close-up of Colvin's bloodied eye, the result of a grenade explosion while on assignment in Sri Lanka in 2001. In a haunting shot just after the explosion, her hand trembles as it moves closer to her face, frozen in disbelief from the loss of her sight. The injury bookmarks the film, as Colvin then donned a black eye patch that became her trademark.
But this is not your typical Hollywood gore: you see what Colvin bore witness to, and went through, in order to deliver the morning news.
Different landscapes, same tragedies
The film swiftly transitions through Colvin’s assignments: a trek in Sri Lanka with rebel Tamil Tigers, her hunt for—and exhumation of—a mass grave in Iraq, ditching US military escorts to report from Afghanistan, dodging heavy fire in Libya’s Misrata, and going through tunnels to enter Homs which, by then, had become “a city of cold, starving civilians.” The film’s cutaways from one warzone to the next are disorienting, but they seem intentional, revealing something essential about Colvin and the way she operated: the locations always changed, but the human suffering and her persistence in telling the story was the same.
At one point, she says: “I hate being in a war zone. But I also feel compelled to see it for myself,” and the line lingers.
While many testify that Colvin could indeed be reckless, her work also reveals more selfless moments of bravery.
“A Private War”, which covers roughly the last decade of her career, explores duelling elements of Colvin’s personality: her idealism and compulsion to see the worst of humanity and share it with the world, and according to the film, a growing cynicism. Heineman illustrates her internal conflict with scenes of heavy drinking, anxious chain-smoking and turbulent relationships. The film traces Colvin’s demons back to the source of her trauma via episodes of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and macabre flashbacks. A good deal of “A Private War”, as its title suggests, is dedicated to moments between wars, showing how Colvin’s psyche grew more tortured after each assignment. After all, the film notes, this woman witnessed more violence than most career soldiers.
Colvin was “addicted” to war, even its trauma, in the words of Paul Conroy, long-time photographer and confidante for Colvin who was also injured in the attack that killed her. His witness to Colvin’s final moments is the subject of a new documentary, Under the Wire, adapted from his book of the same name.
Bravery and bravado
“We always have to ask ourselves whether the level of risk is worth the story. What is bravery, what is bravado?” Colvin asked during a service for war wounded in London in 2010. “A Private War” takes great pains to avoid lionising its protagonist, and as a result the film’s version of Colvin appears to tilt toward bravado, at times to the point of recklessness. While many testify that Colvin could indeed be reckless, her work also reveals more selfless moments of bravery.
Many of these moments are included in a recently-released book, “In Extremis,” written by her friend and fellow-war reporter Lindsey Hilsum.
In East Timor in 1999, Colvin and a handful of other female reporters decided to stay in an embattled UN refugee compound, where 1,500 people had taken shelter from militias, after most journalists and UN staff were evacuated. By some accounts, their presence is said to have prevented a massacre. Regardless, Colvin never filed her story, telling her editor she was too busy helping refugees.
During Lebanon’s civil war in 1987, Colvin made her big break sneaking into Bourj Al Barajneh, a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, then besieged by a Syria-backed militia. During her time there, she assisted medical staff stuck inside the camp, but also witnessed a young Palestinian woman being shot. Colvin later told close friends - as the film recounts in jarring flashbacks - that the woman haunted her dreams for years afterward.
Colvin’s decision to give a live interview from besieged rebel Homs, recounted in the film’s final moments (Heineman used the actual clip), was the ultimate act of bravery. The building where she died was targeted only a few hours after her broadcast.
"A Private War" challenges the trope that war journalism is men’s work. The film shows Colvin traveling with a copy of “The Face of War” by famed twentieth-century war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, a small detail to ensure the viewer realises that Colvin is not alone in the ranks of brave female reporters.