If you ever want to feel bad about your job, watch A Private War. Plenty of films, especially in recent years, have sought to valorize the work of journalists, turning grueling days of source-gathering and fact-checking and staring at computer screens into compelling cinema. These process-oriented tales are both empathetic and educational, doing their best to make the viewer feels as if they know what it’s like to pound the pavement and stay at the office into the wee hours, day after day, in pursuit of The Truth — depicting both the exhaustion of it, as well as how great and honorable it can be in the big picture. Certainly no small part of the appeal of these films is in the feel-good factor that comes from having walked in journalists’ discount-store shoes for a couple hours.
A Private War cranks the exhaustion and the honor up to extremes, as well as the psychological burden. Here, our journalist is Marie Colvin (Rosamund Pike), an American war correspondent who wrote for the U.K.’s Sunday Times from 1985 to (spoiler) her death in 2012. It is not her story so much as it is a portrait of her late career, stringing a series of conflicts and assignments (some of them not so much assigned as actively discouraged, eventually tolerated, and finally lauded). There is not one Big Story here, but a series of them; the focus is not Colvin’s process but the psychology of a woman so magnetically pulled to shed a light on human loss and suffering that a colleague goes so far as to call it an addiction, and the diagnosis feels apt.
As such, it doesn’t give us the back-patting satisfaction of having watched an entire, heroic journalistic task carried through to completion. Colvin’s accomplishments are numerous, and the ones that make it to the screen are mind-boggling. She logs stories in extreme circumstances, including in buildings literally crumbling from nearby shellings, and from a Sri Lankan hospital after losing an eye while reporting on the Tamil Tigers. But the question is never, “How did she do it?” but rather, “What has a life of logging these sorts of stories done to her?” As Colvin, Pike, often prone to stage-y-ness and affectation elsewhere, gives one of her best performances to date. She takes on the low, nasal drawl of the real-life Colvin, and it’s as full-bodied a vocal transformation as Bradley Cooper’s in this year’s A Star Is Born, sounding toasted from years of downing vodka martinis and dodging hails of bullets.
Her deployments (I can’t think of a more apt word, even though Colvin carried no weapons; her undertakings feel as weighty and fraught as the wars themselves) are punctuated by episodes of life back in the first world — affairs and parties and journalism galas rendered surreal through their juxtaposition with the brutality of Colvin’s true workplace. Director Matthew Heineman — here making his first narrative feature after the acclaimed documentaries Cartel Land and City of Ghosts — feels particularly insightful capturing the alienation in that experiential chasm — perhaps being familiar with it himself. As Colvin’s PTSD starts to worsen over the course of the 2000s, Heineman does some fascinating things with time and editing, making panic attacks feel like bad recurring dreams in which the same slideshow keeps playing, compressing individual traumatic events and somehow making them feel like one big one. These episodes strike like tornadoes, picking Colvin up and dropping her in different places and times, giving A Private War a sometimes uncertain, disorienting sense of linear time that is highly effective. Late in the film, Colvin falls for Tony, a wealthy man with a fancy apartment on the Thames, played by Stanley Tucci. Their chemistry in their first meeting is warm and more than a little drunk, but their relationship becomes fractured by the world of violence Colvin is inescapably privy to, and the tendency of the front lines to extend themselves into their bedroom.
Heineman’s film is, in many ways, the movie so many people say they want: a portrait of a deeply complex, flawed, but brilliant and forceful woman. But as tempting as it is to think of Pike’s Colvin, with her eyepatch and sailor’s mouth, as a “badass,” there’s not much that’s aspirational about the film. It’s wise enough to see both the courage and the immense value in her work, and the tremendous toll it took on her life, all the way to the end. Because of that, it doesn’t feel like the back-pat other recent journalism films have. It departs not with a “Mission Accomplished” banner, but with a sense of the weight of witnessing and reporting — not only as Colvin’s burden, but as that of whomever feels compelled to take up her mantle.