The Problematic Truth: Our Review of ‘A Private War’

Posted in Movies, Theatrical by - November 16, 2018
The Problematic Truth: Our Review of ‘A Private War’

War takes its toll in so many different ways…

A Private War is a complex beast of a movie because while it takes to tackling issues of geopolitics and first world guilt with the subtlety of a sledgehammer is also serves as a really interesting character study of what truly drives the people who report on the horrors of war and what genuinely drives them as individuals.

In a world where journalism is under attack, Marie Colvin (Rosamund Pike) is one of the most celebrated war correspondents of our time. Colvin is an utterly fearless and rebellious spirit, driven to the frontlines of conflicts across the globe to give voice to the voiceless, while constantly testing the limits between bravery and bravado. After being hit by a grenade in Sri Lanka, she wears a distinctive eye patch and is still as comfortable sipping martinis with London’s elite as she is confronting dictators. Colvin sacrifices loving relationships, and over time, her personal life starts to unravel as the trauma she’s witnessed takes its toll. Yet, her mission to show the true cost of war leads her along with renowned war photographer Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan) to embark on the most dangerous assignment of their lives in the besieged Syrian city of Homs.

Making that transition between documentary and narrative storytelling in film is not that is as easy as you’d might think.  With A Private War director Matthew Heineman stays inside a subject matter that’s his used to as his documentary films like City of Ghosts and Carteland are some of the best on the subject but that style doesn’t always translate over.  There are far too many blunt moments where politics are on display but the ultimately more fascination moments of the film are looking deep at Colvin herself and what drives her to be what she is.

Heineman admittedly steps up to the table with what he knows from a directorial standpoint as a noted documentarian in some of the worst war torn places that the world has ever seen but that doesn’t mean it’s a seamless transition to the more narrative form.  He does well enough but there are a few too shaky moments as he tries to recreate the sensation that he must have felt being in some random jeep that just had a rocket shot at it and conversely he never feels quite at home directing characters in a movie rather than following subjects.

While the script from Arash Amel that he adapted from the Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner just lacks the overall subtlety and necessary nuance that plays better in a narrative film as we just keep getting pummelled over the head with the horrors of war that Marie witness night in and night out while on assignment (we get it, solid, honest journalism is important, now more than ever but it does feel like it’s screaming it at us rather than trying to make an argument sometimes).  Good chunks of the dialogue are just too clunky and getting us to scratch our heads because there are just too many moments that needed a lighter touch rather than the straight ahead tack the narrative does try to enforce.  The film at least in part address the compulsive need for these brave souls who are war correspondents to head out into the places that most sane people wouldn’t, it need more obvious motivation for the characters as we felt like we could at least empathize with what the traumas that they see do to them psychologically.  I’d have liked to have seen a little more of that then the actual wars that she goes to.

It’s true that I certainly can’t deny that there are some problematic elements to the making of this film it really gets tied together and anchored by some incredibly strong performances.

Rosamund Pike is easily aiming for gold with her portrayal of Marie Colvin.  It’s a hard nose and rough performance as we see her willingly get a little sloppy and leave a very public broken side of her on display while she’s away from the wars.  Pike finds the core of the character as this is a person, much like a career combat solider who feels terribly guilt every second that she’s not knee deep in the mud and dodging bullets and avoiding IED’s.  She wears that angst on her skin like a flak jacket as Pike drags us into the very principled and very noble world of this woman.

Jamie Dornan was just as good right alongside her in some of the best work of his career and the always under rated Tom Hollander added some nice grounding as her editor back in London while Stanley Tucci gets some nice moments as a random lover and friend of Marie’s.  Sadly the supporting players outside of Dornan weren’t incredibly well developed and seeing more of a glimpse at how a person like this is affected on the home front would have been just as compelling.

The reality is the most compelling stories that are out there are the most flawed as well.  A Private War takes us deep into the heart of darkness of war and wants to laud her for doing so…and rightfully so.  However had we received more of a look into the mind of what makes her keeping go back for more then we could have had something genuinely epic.

This post was written by
David Voigt is a Toronto based writer with a problem and a passion for the moving image and all things cinema. Having moved from production to the critical side of the aisle for well over 10 years now at outlets like, Criticize This, Dork Shelf (Now That Shelf), to.Night Newspaper he’s been all across his city, the country and the continent in search of all the news and reviews that are fit to print from the world of cinema.
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