A Private War

War reporter Marie Colvin was an extraordinary figure, famous for her eye patch and her husky, smoke-deepened voice as much as for her passionate, desperate despatches from the front line.

Rosamund Pike gives her finest film performance trying to capture all that. Such a showy and impressive turn risks unbalancing the movie which can’t decide if it’s about the woman herself or the conflict she’s covering.

Perhaps that’s what appeals to director Matthew Heineman whose previous films are the amazing documentaries Cartel Land, in which Matt himself is caught up in a Mexican drugs war, and City of Ghosts, about the ordinary men from Raqqa reporting on what it’s like to live under Isis – one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever seen. Like the best documentary makers, he’s always part of the story, but aware the story’s so much bigger than him.

Colvin’s reporting for the Sunday Times was the same, always about the human side of conflict, about the devastation wrought on those left in the wreckage. I interviewed Marie’s photographer Paul Conroy on my radio show the other day (he’s played by Jamie Dornan in the film, which is a bit of stretch for both of them) and he told me that wherever he went with Marie, it always seemed to end up in a basement full of crying women and children.

Unsurprisingly, the film conveys the rubble of Syria and the horror of living under shelling and wailing with a chilling, gripping realism. And Pike herself is tremendous at getting across Colvin’s fear. That usual epithet you hear about Marie, that she was fearless, is totally laid to rest here: she was terrified. 

The film’s less good imagining how that terror haunted her alone at night, back in London, the “private” bit of the movie’s title. Pike gets a bit carried away in these scenes and they look a little like an actor’s workshop, although at least it’s with a very good actor. She’s better when putting on the front that sees her cackling at London parties and sleeping with men, such as the banker played by Stanley Tucci. Throughout, Pike mainlines a sense of danger and walks a fragile tightrope, playing Marie as if every drink, every fag, every throaty guffaw, might be her last.

I like the scenes in the newspaper office, too, with Tom Hollander as the foreign desk editor sticking his neck out for his reporter and, I assume, signing off her expenses claims. Gosh, all that feels like it’s from the past and you realise how important newspapers used to be and wonder who’s left reporting on what’s really happening now.

In the absence of people like Marie and amid the dwindling funding and official intimidation of those like Paul Conroy (as well as the slurs of ‘fake news’ bandied about by idiots in power), who’s holding terror and power to account?

So many questions explode out of A Private War. You can’t believe the conflict in Syria is still going on. Marie’s death was seven years ago and millions of people have died since. I did feel rather powerless watching the film, as I often do in front of war photography or war reporting – ooh, that’s terrible, but what can I do about all this? Isn’t all happening far away from me? What do I care about the squabbles of bloody dictators in Biafra, Sudan, Sri Lanka or Syria?

And then I realised why those long dark nights of Marie’s soul are important to show, even if we have to imagine them. Because she is us, the women and children locked in the basement of our conscience. Through her and Pike’s performance, we are battling our guilt and our ghosts.