Sometimes real people are even more brave and courageous than fictional characters. That’s the case with war correspondent Marie Colvin. She was an American journalist who wrote for the British newspaper The Sunday Times, often risking her life to report from the frontlines and embattled areas where she felt it paramount to “Give voice to the voiceless.”
Colvin’s career at The Times started in 1985. This biographical film picks up in 1986 as she (Rosamund Pike, Oscar nominee for Gone Girl) careens from one dangerous location to the next: Following Tamil Tigers rebels in Sri Lanka, she gets caught in a crossfire when Sinhalese troops attack and shrapnel strikes her causing the loss of sight in her left eye. There’s the mass grave she uncovers, by sheer will and determination, outside of Fallujah, Iraq. Chronicling attacks by the Taliban on civilians and US aid convoys in Afghanistan puts her in the middle of another humanitarian crisis. And, she’s there in Libya to interview dictator Muammar Gaddafi shortly before his downfall.
For every step she takes, military Humvee she rides in and corner she hides in, you are by her side. Bullets wiz by. Exploding bits and pieces fill the air. Bombs rain down. And as that happens, Colvin flinches for a second, then heads back to where the story is. Back to investigating and sharing the truth about innocent people whose lives are being torn apart by war, rebellions and invasions. How does she do it? Colvin says, “You’re never going to get to where you’re going if you acknowledge fear.”
The source material for the thoroughly compelling script by Arash Amel is Marie Brenner’s 2012 Vanity Fair article “Marie Colvin’s Private War.” The film’s engaging narrative weaves Colvin’s harrowing experiences together with her personal life: She’s separated from her husband and dating a very rich man (Stanley Tucci). Her testy relationship with her ambitious editor (Tom Hollander), who spins her articles into attention-grabbing journalism that nets Colvin Foreign Reporter of the Year awards, can be confrontational. There’s also the friendship she builds with freelance photojournalist Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan, Fifty Shades of Gray), whom she hires in Bagdad.
With the fact-based storyline, historic incidents and vibrant relationships in place, it is up to a very perceptive and grassroots-type filmmaker to execute from the blueprint. The searing 2017 documentary City of Ghosts chronicled the exploits of Syrian activists, a group called “Raqq Is Being Slaughtered Silently;” it followed the resistance movement as its country was being invaded and coming under the rule of ISIS. That raw, BAFTA Award-winning documentary was shot in the middle of the assault. Matthew Heineman was the doc’s bold director/producer/cinematographer. He marks his feature film narrative debut at the helm of this ferociously authentic bio/drama.
Heineman’s keen ability to shoot disturbing battle scenes and guerilla fighting and capture the dangers of warfare is expected. His knack for making this film so personal, and delving into Colvin’s private life (marital strife, drinking and sexual dalliances) with equal dexterity is a pleasant surprise. Heineman is aided by a brilliant cinematographer (Robert Richardson, JFK, Salvador, Natural Born Killers) and relatively judicious editor (Nick Fenton) who intertwines the past, present and Colvin’s haunting visions together into a cohesive montage, marred somewhat by too many hallucinations. The production design (Sophie Becher), art direction (Matthew Hywel-Davies) and costume design (Michael O’Connor) are impeccable. While the musical score (H. Scott Salinas, Cartel Land) whips emotions. like fear and grief, into a frenzy and an entrancing theme song, “Requiem For a Private War,” which is written and sung by Annie Lennox, leaves a somber impression.
Rosamund Pike has the difficult task of making a stalwart tough-as-nails writer an empathetic character. She does so gracefully by displaying an underlying sense of vulnerability that hides under a callous surface that protects Colvin from an onslaught of the kind of grave danger that would scare a hardened war vet. Yet, she is just a writer and her only weapons are a pencil, a cell phone and a newspaper. As a war correspondent, who is constantly under siege, physically and emotionally, she wrestles with the toll it’s taken on her. Pike says: “The chatter in my head won’t go quiet until a quart of vodka is in me.”
Supporting actors raise Pike’s performance up. Colvin’s best friend Rita, played by Nikki Amuka-Bird (The Children Act), suggests her PTSD-suffering pal seek treatment. Tucci’s character Tony Shaw lets the rough-riding journalist relax in her off hours, soothed by love-making. Hollander as the editor Sean Ryan spars with Colvin, taking her abuse and supporting her, too: Says the writer to her boss, “I see it so you won’t have to.” The most intimate friendship on view is that between the veteran reporter and her photographer Paul Conroy, who is played in the most understated way by Jamie Dornan. In this one performance, Dornan wipes away the dubious memories of his performances in the Fifty Shades of Grey series.
Periodically as the footage progresses and noted incidents occur, words appear on the screen indicating that the event happened in a specific amount of time before Homs, e.g. “Two years before Homs.” It’s an ominous way to lead viewers to the year 2012 in Homs, Syria. Twenty-eight thousand civilians were trapped, and the Syrian government claimed that innocent people were not being bombed. Colvin knew otherwise and charged into the middle of the carnage seeking the truth.
There is a part of Colvin’s behavior that parallels that of extreme sports junkies. Something is propelling her way beyond the scope of a dedicated journalist looking for the next big story. Her compulsive behavior lacks a basic survival skill that stops most people from entering life-threatening situations. It’s a fascinating, complicated and addictive psyche; the kind that often shapes central characters in page-turner novels. Only in this case, this story is far from fiction.