Review: 'A Private War' Only Succeeds at Being Unevenly Stimulating

Lauren Miller ‘22 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Great war films are always about the human cost of the conflict, but they’re rarely about women. So it’s rare and exciting to see a film that focuses on a woman’s experience in war zones, especially one that has a uniquely female perspective, rather than just a central female character. That being said, there’s a difference between a film that’s important and a film that’s unforgettable. A Private War, unfortunately, is only the former.
A Private War, based on the Vanity Fair article “Marie Colvin’s Private War,”  is the true story of war correspondent Marie Colvin (Rosamund Pike). She tirelessly devoted her life to reporting on the carnage of conflicts in the Middle East, often at the expense of her own health and, eventually, her life. The film follows the final decade or so of her career, from the attack in Sri Lanka where she lost sight in her left eye and began wearing her trademark eye patch, to her final report in Syria, where she was killed. Alternating between the war zones she covered and the destruction in her personal life, it attempts to paint a picture of the human suffering war brings about. Not just for those civilians Colvin advocated for throughout her career, but for the journalists like Colvin who tell their stories.
The film works on many levels to bring Colvin’s story to life. Director Matthew Heineman is best known for his work on documentaries like City of Ghosts and the Academy Award Nominated Cartel Land and he brings that experience with him. The scenes of Colvin covering war zones are shot in a documentary style that lends itself to tension and a grounding realism. You anticipate each explosion, but it still rocks you.

Rosamund Pike in A Private War. Photo Credit: Aviron Pictures.
Rosamund Pike’s transformation, physical and vocal, is the sort of complete immersion people like Gary Oldman win Oscars for. She looks a little like Indiana Jones, with her flak or leather jackets, her confident action star movements, and her gravelly voice. But once she’s out of her adventure hero element, Pike brings to life an internalized battle in small, seemingly thoughtless movements: her fiddling with her eyepatch, her shaking hands with a lighter, her clutching a drink like it’s a lifeline. You don’t need anyone to explain her damage or her bravery; you can see it every moment she’s on screen.
And that incredible performance is paired with one of the best visualizations of PTSD ever put to screen. Heineman’s crash-cut montages of flashbacks, present actions, and dream sequences are truly horrific. Pike’s restrained performance and some truly clever sound design mean each sequence cuts straight to the core. They leave the audience as disoriented and uncertain of reality as Colvin is, putting us straight into Colvin’s mind better than any dialogue ever could.
But the film will still try to explain Colvin through dialogue. The screenplay is well-paced and mostly strong, but it lacks subtlety. This is not inherently bad; given that Colvin’s style of writing was also blunt, it makes perfect sense most of the time. But other times, mostly when the focus is shifted to Colvin’s life at home in London, the dialogue is clunky. One scene between Colvin and Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan) early in the film stands out as particularly egregious, especially since so much of the information dumped on the audience then never follow up.
Rosamund Pike and Jamie Dornan in A Private War. Photo Credit: Aviron Pictures.
This clunkiness wouldn’t be so bad, however, had the directorial style Heineman displays in the war zone and flashback scenes been present for Colvin’s personal life. Instead, every scene in London not built inside Colvin’s head are seemingly directed by someone else. It’s simple shot-reverse-shot with no pizzazz, so flatly lit and perfunctory as to feel completely separate from the rest of the movie. These scenes of Colvin’s personal conflict, her private war, are integral to the film’s message. When they fail to fit together, the entire movie loses impact.
Which is a shame, because A Private War is a fitting tribute to Marie Colvin. The closing moments, in particular, honor her legacy and her life’s work by galvanizing the audience to the cause she relentless championed: the protection of civilians that are made casualties of war. Colvin herself explained that she only ever hoped her work would make other people care as much as she did.
Not all of A Private War will succeed in making you care: about Colvin, about the people in her life, about her work, about the conflicts she covered in the world. There’s just a little too much standing in the way between the film and real greatness, the gut-wrenching impact a war film should have. But something in A Private War will stay with you. Something in it will make you care.
Overall Grade: B-
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