The late journalist Marie Colvin was killed covering the Syrian Civil War for the Sunday Times of London in 2012. The reason for her death is the subject of the biopic "A Private War," but not necessarily in the way you might expect.
Rosamund Pike stars as Colvin, in a savage re-invention as the war-torn journalist. It's hard to believe this is the same actress who appeared porcelain as the suburban ice queen in 2014's "Gone Girl." Pike's brave and gritty performance is one of the main reasons to see "A Private War," which is more eulogy than story.
It begins in Sri Lanka, with a re-creation of the events that led to the loss of Colvin's left eye, and quickly progresses into equally dangerous conflicts that drew the journalist, as one male lover claims, like a moth to a flame.
"A Private War" is an unusual biography because it is not so much about Colvin's life, or even her career, as it is about her calling. It opens with voice-over recording of the real person, offering insight into why she wanted to cover war zones, and the rest of the film answers that question. It's not that complex on the surface. There are helpless starving people with their kids being shelled somewhere, and Colvin wanted to tell their stories.
There were a lot of large-scale conflicts during Colvin's career, sending "A Private War" into a breakneck pace to keep up with them. The movie eventually has to abandon the pretext of narrative cohesion. We learn nothing of Colvin's past and only snippets of her personal life, which, as the film has it, was not so cohesive itself.
"A Private War" is scattershot but still effective at what it wants to do, which is ponder the nobility or futility of Colvin's efforts. The movie is at its best re-creating events Colvin witnessed first hand, often as the only Western journalist brave enough to be present, though her photographer Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan) deserves mention for braving military checkpoints and bombed-out cities with her.
The resulting mosaic imparts a surprisingly comprehensive impression of what it was like to dive headlong into situations most of us are relieved to see happening somewhere far away, and be the bystander at civilization's worst looks.
"We're writing the first draft of history," Colvin tells another war correspondent amazed at reporters' using "we" when talking about American troops during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Did Colvin really say that? And what did she mean by it? That's the one downside of the movie's method. It barely has time to really try to get to know its subject.
"A Private War" is more interested in honoring her work, which for her was giving a voice to people doomed otherwise to be part of a nightly body count, dryly delivered on the evening news and then in all likelihood quickly forgotten. The movie suggests that pushing back against that tendency to gloss over and forget atrocity was partly what drove Colvin.
One of the primary questions Pike as Colvin raises is whether her war reporting, or anyone's, really does any good. But if that's up for debate — ceaseless war despite reporting suggests it is up for debate — one has to wonder whether a movie about war reporting does any good either. "A Private War" seems to acknowledge the possibility while, like Colvin, carrying on with its work anyway.
Colvin's work could be argued as brave and hopeless. The one point of view doesn't necessarily deny the other, something Colvin tacitly acknowledges in the film.
It presents as its finale the Battle of Homs during the Syrian Civil War. Colvin, according to the film, was the only Western journalist on the ground as bombs rained, but could not bring herself to leave when she found out her area was the next target. She couldn't leave 28,000 starving civilians behind without filing her report first, through a satellite link, so the world would know about it. And it killed her.
Those 28,000 were almost certainly doomed no matter what Colvin did. She had to know that, and stayed anyway. "A Private War" wants us to know that, too. (R) 106 min.