Film Review: ‘A Private War’: It’s Better to Burn Out Than to Fade Away

By Mark Jackson, Epoch Times
November 6, 2018 Updated: November 6, 2018

R | 1h 46min | Biography , Drama , War | 16 November 2018 (USA)

What could be a more irresistible life choice than exposing the truth behind the world’s lies, via the high-visibility platform of a renowned media outlet? Hitching all that ground-breaking truth-telling to a massive adrenaline-junkie addiction, would be more irresistible.

Furthermore irresistible: You’re a spec ops warrior in the body of a woman. You get in dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s face and give him a piece of your mind. You put your helmet on and get neck-deep in war zones. Shrapnel takes one of your eyes, and you slap on a black, pirate’s eye-patch, keep chain-smoking, tossing back whisky shots, and head back into the fray—same as any special operations teams guy. And you slowly build up the same staggering load of PTSD any true war-fighter is at risk for.

Marie Colvin wears eyepatch
Marie Colvin (Rosamund Pike) in “A Private War.” (Aviron Pictures)

Rosamund Pike, the blond British actress with more than a passing resemblance to Grace Kelly, slams down an Oscar-worthy, character-actress performance of impressive shape-shifting.

Charlize Theron, another fearless character actress in the body of a blond-bombshell leading lady, with no regard for how unsightly her choices of roles make her look onscreen, is the producer. Director Matthew Heineman himself has been embedded in dangerous situations in his previous films. It was heartwarming to see the level of dedication to truth-telling in this film.

Going Where Angels Fear to Tread

Many films of late have paid tribute to the work of journalists, such as “The Post,” “Shock and Awe,” “City of Ghosts,” “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” “Jim,” “Truth,” “True Story,” “The End of the Tour,” “Kill the Messenger,” and “Nightcrawler.”

Usually there’s one theme, for example—expose the Catholic church’s cover-up of pedophile priests (“Spotlight”). Directors have successfully learned to dramatize the outwardly boring, chinos-and-tie-wearing, notebook-scribbling, trail-sniffing, library-stack-ransacking, 18-cups-of-coffee-drinking life of the journalist.

“A Private War” takes all that and adds the spec ops aspect like a turbocharger. It’s faster, badder, and infinitely more dangerous.

Rosamund Pike standing in front of map
Marie Colvin (Rosamund Pike) in “A Private War.” (Aviron Pictures)

“A Private War” is a biopic about Marie Colvin (Pike), an American war correspondent. She wrote for Great Britain’s Sunday Times from 1985 until her death in Syria in 2012.

And so, unlike the journalism movies about one big theme, this is more of a “greatest hits” of one woman’s war journalism career—“hits” being the key word. She got hit hard, and gave as good as she got. She wrenched the truth into the spotlight.

Rosamund Pike standing in war-torn countryside
Marie Colvin (Rosamund Pike) in “A Private War.” (Aviron Pictures)

Colvin was a force of nature, and it’s no surprise that she’s now lauded cinematically. Hers is a story that begged to be told, because to witness this level of courage, integrity, passion, authenticity, and dedication is to empower yourself.

You may quickly recognize that no number of wild horses could drag you into the situations she willingly put herself in: endlessly cowering behind various forms of cover to escape AK-47 fire, shellings, improvised explosive devices, errant drone strikes, and border patrol interrogation/intimidation.

In stark opposition to her harrowing, in-theater war correspondent adventures, there’s her safe life back home: fetes and press conferences, wine and cigarettes with friends and fellow journalists, and affectionate-but-passionate squabbles with her editor Sean (a never-better Tom Hollander).

Marie Colvin receives accolades
Marie Colvin (Rosamund Pike, foreground, C) is applauded as she enters the British Press Awards with boyfriend Tony Shaw (Stanley Tucci, foreground, L) in “A Private War.” (Paul Conroy/Aviron Pictures)

Speaking of other cast members, Jamie Dornan, who portrayed Christian Grey in “Fifty Shades of Grey,” has fully redeemed himself here. He, like Rosamund Pike, has model looks, and yet he turns in a hard-to-recognize-him-as-that-guy, searing performance as Colvin’s photographer.

Jamie Dornan as Paul Conroy at conference
War photographer Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan) attends the British Press Awards in “A Private War.” (Paul Conroy/Aviron Pictures) 

Out of the Blue and Into the Black

While it’s true that any unchecked addiction will kill you, it would be sacrilege to reduce Colvin’s drive to adrenaline addiction. However, most career paths that walk the razor’s edge of getting oneself killed inherently contain an addiction that will ultimately end up getting oneself killed.

Rosamund Pike Jamie Dornan in a car
Marie Colvin (Rosamund Pike) and Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan) fearfully drive through a war zone in “A Private War.” (Aviron Pictures)

Although she wasn’t 27 when she died, in some ways, Colvin belongs to the “27 Club,” and her life is an example of what Neil Young meant when he said “it’s better to burn out than to fade away.”

The takeaway here is that “A Private War” isn’t a feel-good film in terms of exiting the theater doing a fist pump, and saying (regarding fallen Catholic priests) “Yeah! They got those guys!” This is paying tribute to sacrifice. Marie Colvin bore witness and carried the burden of truth to reveal the cost of war, so, as she said to her editor, “You don’t have to.”

Marie Colvin at mass grave
Marie Colvin (Rosamund Pike, L) discovers a mass grave outside of Fallujah, Iraq, and bears witness as backhoes dig up skeletons, in “A Private War.” (Keith Bernstein/Aviron Pictures)

I imagine a conversation between Colvin’s soul, prior to incarnating on earth, and the Spirit of Truth:

I said, “My heart wants a kiss from You.”
You say: “The price of a kiss is Life.”
My heart came up and sat down beside me and said:
“It’s a cheap down payment!”

That’s my favorite Rumi poem.

Film Review: ‘A Private War’
Director: Matthew Heineman
Starring: Rosamund Pike, Jamie Dornan, Stanley Tucci, Tom Hollander, Corey Johnson, Nikki Amuka-Bird
Rated: R
Running Time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
Release Date: Nov. 16
Rated 4 stars out of 5