A Private War Criticisms

“I want people to know your story.”

A Private War recognizes, in words, Marie Colvin’s ethos right from the get-go. Her mission, first and foremost, was to speak truth to power, unearthing the horrors bequeathed to civilians by leaders and governments. Rosamund Pike, who plays her in the film, repeats this mantra frequently, stressing the importance of telling individual stories from the world’s war-torn regions. Men buried in secret for decades (“Uncovered: the secret grave of 600 murdered Kuwaitis”); women sheltering their children from bombs (“Final dispatch from Homs, the battered city”); the drivers and translators who die while helping journalists write the rough draft of history (“Our mission is to report these horrors of war with accuracy and without prejudice”) and so on.

And while the film understands what Colvin stood for, its focus is so narrow that it ends up a disservice to her regardless.

The film claims to know Colvin. It claims to know the effect telling other people’s stories has on her — in that regard it succeeds; its portrayal of PTSD is commendable — and yet, despite its insistence on the importance of other people’s stories, the film remains woefully limited in the way it contextualizes one of the 21st century’s most important storytellers, letting the stories themselves and the people they’re about fall by the wayside. We see the end result, certainly; Pike plays a woman haunted by waking horrors we can barely imagine, but that’s all these tales ever are in A Private War. They exist only as lingering trauma for the film’s version of Colvin, even though plenty of scenes exist where we watch her watching them unfold.

The technical craft, admittedly, borders on irreproachable. Pike’s expert vocal impression of Colvin is matched by her inside-out approach, letting her weary posture and weighty conscience dictate how she interacts. Director Matthew Heineman (City of Ghosts) sure knows how to stage the bloody aftermath of war; he and cinematography legend Robert Richardson practically capture the smell of rot and sorrow as dust is kicked up into the unforgiving sun, before dirt and sweltering heat finally find their place on both living and dead faces. Colvin’s repeated PTSD flashbacks twist geography and place her within a winding house; as she completes her walkthrough once more, a girl lies dead on her bed. The images themselves are haunting and their impact on Pike’s Colvin is the connecting of a final dot, but where those dots begin is where the film fails its own subject.

In any other story, the end result would’ve been enough. And it is, when it comes to empathizing with Colvin, whose good deeds happen to amount to self-destructive obsession; even being hospitalized for shell shock or a missing eye can’t hold her back. Yet the film’s focus is so blinkered, aimed at Colvin and Colvin alone, that empathy itself becomes linear, rendering her own talk of bringing people’s stories to the world just that: talk.

Few other characters in the film get names; Jamie Dornan portrays real-life photographer Paul Conroy, while Tom Hollander holds down the fort as The Times’ foreign editor Sean Ryan. Colvin’s friends and lovers get names and a sense of interior life, as do a handful of other journalists, but apart from her Iraqi escort Mourad (Fady Elsayed), the very people Colvin risked her life to write about are often turned into background detail.

Twenty-year-old Noor, for instance, whom Colvin wrote about in Homs, doesn’t get a name when she shows up. Her children Mimi and Mohamed don’t get names in the film either, and scenes where Pike towers over these Middle Eastern women claiming to want to tell their stories take on an unintentionally sinister tone, even if the racial dynamics are ignored. Whether or not the film intends it, the people whose lives Colvin risked all to bring to the world are, in the context of the narrative, interchangeable plot-points without individual impact. Where the fictional Colvin most certainly retains memories of the girl on her bed and of another girl who wore gold earrings — referenced but never shown; the Vanity Fair article on which the film is based has a more detailed account — whatever these people’s stories are doesn’t seem to impact who Colvin is in the film, despite the numerous allusions in dialogue to the same. They are, each, reduced to their bloody deaths and nothing more.

The stories we see are barely gleamed, and they hardly change Colvin; the stories that do change her are not the stories we see, and so there is a fundamental disconnect. The “what” is clear — war is horrifying, and it changes Colvin — but the “why” is practically absent, and her experiences as they’re edited together in the film could easily be transposed to a story of a soldier, someone at a distance from the stories of the dead, and make the same amount of visual sense.

The world needs to see these images, claims Colvin, as the film turns Iraq, Libya and Syria into a single continuum. To demand that it step outside its own context and explore political specifics would be to demand that it stray from its focus, but these various locales are connected only by Colvin’s presence. They exist only as fodder for the fictional Colvin and her nominal devolvement into sorrow (change around their order and her trajectory is unaltered); take for instance, the baby boy killed in Syria that led to Colvin’s interview with Anderson Cooper (note: the footage is graphic). The event is re-created for the film, focusing on the impact the boy’s death has on Colvin, and while its staging is effective on its own, it feels completely wrong-headed in context.

The parents of the boy wail with grief, but after one fleeting close-up of the father (the mother’s face, shockingly, is never once shown) the focus reverts to Colvin. The film frames her between the bodies of the parents, watching from a distance. And as they hug each other, they tighten the frame around her. It’s a brilliant moment when isolated from any larger concerns, the closing of a loop that begins with Colvin’s visit to Sri Lanka (during which she loses an eye to an RPG) and ends with the story in front of her consuming her entirely — but this is all these parents are to the film. They are only the factors and details that motivate Colvin’s mission, albeit a noble one, and they’re robbed of the very moment of human devastation that would, in all likelihood (at least as presented in the events of the film) have compelled the fictional Colvin to take the stand she did, the very stand that lead to her assassination.

Even if one were to forego the idea that names might be important — we’re dealing with a visual medium, after all — in the film, this is the story that Marie Colvin died for. And it’s barely presented as a story at all.

For a film that wants desperately to paint a portrait of a woman to whom the lives of war casualties were of utmost concern, A Private War makes Marie Colvin’s struggles so private as to sever them from the people whose tragedies set them in motion. A shame, considering everything else about it works. Everything but the way the story is told.

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