Anchored by Rosamund Pike’s powerhouse lead performance, this restive, raw movie slowly accumulates the heft to render its flaws irrelevant. Covering 2001 until Colvin’s death in Syria in 2012, Arash Amel’s occasionally bumpy storytelling (based on a 2012 Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner) jumps uneasily from one war zone to another. Facts are fuzzy, the rubble and bodies and wailing women blurring together until you realize that’s the point: locations change, but armed conflict is always the same in the innocents it claims and the suffering it causes. To Colvin — whether half-blinded by shrapnel in Sri Lanka or uncovering a mass grave in Iraq — that suffering was always the story.
Afraid both of dying young and of growing old, Colvin addictively courts a chaos that the cinematographer, Robert Richardson, renders so vividly he seems keen to give us all a little of her PTSD. The real Colvin would have probably approved.
What keeps this from being more than just a functional There Goeth the Great Woman biopic is not just Pike, who doesn’t just imbue Colvin with all of those aforementioned qualities but also gives her a spine and a soul. (She’s always been the sort of actor who can make semi-decent roles seem better than they are and great roles in movies like The World’s End and Gone Girl feel positively bliss-inducing.) It’s also the fact that director Matthew Heineman comes to this with what could be a deeper-than-usual understanding of the rush and regrets of Colvin’s profession. A documentarian by trade, he risked life and limb making Cartel Land (2015), a frontline report on the War on Drugs happening on both sides of the Mexican border. The 34-year-old filmmaker also profiled numerous members of Raqqa Is Being Silently Slaughtered, a collective of “citizen journalists” smuggling out footage of Syria’s civil war to the West, in City of Ghosts (2017). Heineman himself may not have been on the ground with them — “I would have been killed instantly” he told The Guardian — but you don’t spend that much time with people enduring such extremities without gleaning a few things.
You can hazard a guess that these aspects play into the urgency he brings to the filmmaking here, with the camera whip-panning and zooming as Colvin and Conroy find themselves in the shit, or following directly behind them as they run to shelter during a particularly dodgy firefight in Libya. (The cinematography by the legendary Robert Richardson apes war videography to an alarming, uncomfortable degree.) Or that Heineman and editor Nick Fenton aren’t able to cut from a dead body straight to a dinner party without grasping the disparity Colvin herself experienced — from watching women in black cry over dug-up corpses to accepting a War Correspondent of the Year accolade while clad in a little black dress.
It’s grace notes like that, along with an almost palpable sense of post-shelling grit layering many of the images, which keep you engaged with this retelling of a cut-too-short life. And it’s the limitations of the genre that prevent the movie from sometimes feeling like just another familiar story of trial, triumph and tragedy. Not that Colvin’s life was not extraordinary in every way, shape or form; A Private War just occasionally reduces that story to a series of recalled incidents and recounted exchanges, from war zone to war zone, one standard biopic beat to the next standard biopic beat. You don’t want to hate the player, but you do feel yourself getting frustrated by the game.