In early 2012, as the regime of Bashar al-Assad rained bombs on civilians in the Syrian city of Baba Amr, war photographer Paul Conroy found himself refusing to leave. He was wounded from the government’s relentless shelling, as were other journalists with him. His longtime friend and colleague Marie Colvin, the storied war correspondent of The London Times, had been killed in the bombing. As he recounts in Under the Wire, his memoir and also the harrowing new documentary based on it, Conroy didn’t want to escape Syria if it meant leaving behind so many women and children. The residents who were leading the escape disagreed. Near the end of Chris Martin’s film, Conroy tells the story: “They said, ‘Look. Your friends are dead. My friends are dead. All these people’s families are dead.’”
Then they shoved him onto a bicycle.
“‘Get out and tell the world,’” Conroy says he was told, his voice touched with pained awe. “That was their words: ‘Tell. The. World.’”
Martin’s film finds Conroy still telling the story, still trying to get the world’s attention. (Matthew Heineman’s drama A Private War, about the life of Colvin, also in theaters, tells aspects of it, with Rosamund Pike in the lead.) Under the Wire includes Conroy’s scarifying footage of bombs falling on the Syrian cities of Homs and Baba Amr, of civilians torn apart by the munitions, of the helpless survivors packed into what they call a “widows’ basement,” of an injured baby who might have been saved if refugees had been allowed by the government to flee the town — or if Red Cross doctors were allowed in. He also tells Colvin’s story, the story of the last story that she reported, alerting the world to the terrors she endured just as she had done for so many others.
Colvin joined Conroy on a 2012 trip into war-torn Syria. The film and memoir both attest to her courage, her ingenuity for getting herself where local authorities didn’t want her, her doggedness in reporting when there, her zeal for doing just what the residents of Baba Amr asked of Conroy: telling the world. Conroy and Martin tell the stories of what the reporter and photographer discovered but also how they got there — and how Conroy, eventually, got out. The film unfolds as a sort of first-person procedural, through Conroy’s own footage and after-the-fact, on-camera testimony. (“A bullet,” he says, “doesn’t sound like the films. They fuckin’ whiz past you and you don’t know whether it’s near or close.”) It’s a vivid step-by-step account of a reporting trip to hell. We glimpse the pair’s dash from Lebanon into Syria, where a truck waits for them in the night — the journalists have to trust that its occupants are who they hope. Conroy describes the series of quick gut decisions such an incursion into a war zone demands: Get in this vehicle? Crawl into this tunnel?
There is a tunnel, under the desert, nightmarishly dark, that Conroy and Colvin must pass through, and his footage and description are nerve-racking. Even more wrenching is the return trip, days and many deaths later, where Conroy must haul himself through, buoyed and burdened by the hopes of those Syrians — and the story he must share of Bashar al-Assad’s slaughter.