Hard-edged and harrowed, Rosamund Pike is magnificent in A Private War, the story of Marie Colvin, the behind-the-frontlines war reporter for England’s Sunday Times who died in Syria in 2012. Pike wears a black eye patch for much of the film and makes her voice husky, to suggest years of self-care via cigarettes. Her Colvin snarks and snarls at her editor and her unfaithful husband, and the men around her on her reporting tours of war zones — Lebanon, Sri Lanka — spend much of their time aghast at her methods: Rather than embed herself with Western troops, she’s just going to strike out on her own, to meet civilians or rebel forces?
Pike’s Colvin is haunted by visions of carnage she has seen, sometimes imagining that her London home is a bombed-out shell of itself, that a little girl she saw die is lying in her own bed. Colvin at first shakes off friends’ suggestion that she might be suffering from PTSD after losing that eye in Sri Lanka — she can’t let anything or anyone slow her down, keep her from exposing the horrors of wars the West knows nothing about. Her motivating belief: If she tells the world, the world might be moved to care.
In short, Colvin is very much the kind of crusading hero that men usually play in movies. A Private War (directed by Matthew Heineman and written by Arash Amel) succeeds on two fronts. First, it’s a celebration/examination of Colvin herself, of the reporter’s courage and the toll that all that time under enemy fire takes on a mind and body. Second: It’s the chance to see Pike do all that dude-hero stuff, barging into danger as everyone else tells her not to, insisting on sticking around a basement that’s being shelled so that she can broadcast word of Bashar al-Assad’s slaughter of his own people. Bombs kaboom and dust rains down as she tells Anderson Cooper, on live TV, the truth about Syria.
A Private War is also a prickly genius movie, the kind that suggests that the traits that might make a great war correspondent are not ones that make it easy to shape a rewarding personal life. Scenes of Colvin with friends and lovers, though, mostly are a little too pat; unlike the scenes of her overseas, ducking bullets, these moments have the air of biopic compression, of moments staged to make a point about the drift of a life rather than moments that the subject might actually have lived. She drinks, she shocks people with her brusqueness, she flinches at flashbacks, she studies her face in mirrors. Still, Pike does fine work in her confrontations with Londoners who haven’t seen the terrors that Colvin has: A scene of her refusing to dash out a cigarette in a restaurant is a small marvel, an illustration of a woman who has faced so much death that she can’t be bothered with civilized niceties.
Still, by emphasizing above all else Colvin’s own story, the filmmakers subordinate the stories that Colvin herself cared so deeply about to something like a backdrop. Yes, we get to see her call Muammar Gaddafi a murderer to his face, but the specifics of these conflicts are only vaguely rendered in the film; the carnage that so often surrounds Colvin is more often presented as a testament to her bravery than as people whose lives might also have commanded our attention. On occasion, we hear excerpts from her work or her journals, read with flat power by Pike, but these passages tend to be generalizing, about war itself rather than specific reporting. The film emphasizes the guts it took to do the work above the work itself.
Also, why in the living hell does the great war correspondent have to have a nude scene? Pike may get the chance, in A Private War, to play the kind of hero that Hollywood’s men have always played, but those men don’t have to ease sexily into a bathtub.