Movie ReviewsA Private War – An Emotionally Distant War Biopic

leandromatos1981November 16, 2018

Headline: a solid film that fails to deliver a lasting impression.

Synopsis: In a world where journalism is under attack, Marie Colvin 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 — to embark on the most dangerous assignment of their lives in the besieged Syrian city of Homs. (Aviron Pictures)

Starring: Rosamund Pike, Jamie Dorman, and Stanley Tucci

Writer: Arash Amel

Director: Matthew Heineman

Rating: 14A (Canada)/R (United States)

Running Time: 110mins


“A Private War” tells the true story of war correspondent Marie Colvin (Pike), who covered many wars in places such as Syria, Sri Lanka, and East Timor, placing herself in serious danger a great number of times. Marie was deeply interested in the human stories behind those conflicts, always eager to share the pain of the regular people with the rest of the world. She knew the best way to fight the war was to make us care for the ones who were in the middle of it without being asked if they wanted to be there in the first place. But her determination to register the worst of the worst that violence could inflict on innocent people took its tool: she fought her our private war against the physical and psychological traumas of such exposure, inevitably scaring her psyche in deep and complicated ways.

This is a curious film to watch and analyze: it is so because there are two very distinct scenarios presented here. One can rationalize the film and its themes pretty easily, and objectively reflect on its meanings. It’s easy to understand what the movie is talking about. It’s there right in front of us: the horrors of war, the total absurdity of it all, and the incomparable human loss in each conflict. Intellectually, the film presents all these elements in the clearest way possible, so we do understand pretty well everything that is happening and everything Marie is going through. We understand her uncontrollable need to go back to the war zone, her need to share those stories with the world and the hell she puts herself thought because of it.

On the other hand, one can analyze this film on an emotional level. And that is the point where the movie fails to deliver. There is something missing in the scenes; emotion is missing. We go into these scenes and we do recognize that they are emotional scenes but they don’t move us or make us feel anything. We know when we are seeing something sad, we just don’t feel sad about it. And that happens because the staging of the scenes is distant. Even the conflict scenes are just blah and unimaginative. There’s no sense of urgency in them. Remember Saving Private Ryan and the Omaha beach opening scene? Everything here is miles away from that.

So when the movie asks us to relate to Marie’s journey and the pain she’s witnessing (and then feeling it herself), we are left with the understanding that all of that is, indeed, pretty awful. But we never really feel it, because the movie fails to really throw us inside the war. Bombs explode far away, there no much blood anywhere or severe people injured, most of the big tragedies she witnesses are only in the background. It’s hard to really feel bad for the people who died in a bombed bus if Marie only passes by the site of the accident and the camera hardly focus on the tragedy. For a movie that asks us to understand what the main character is going through, the traumas she’s dealing with when we don’t really see much of it, is fatal.

That fight between rationality and emotion splashes over Pike’s performance. She’s a great actress (terrific in Gone Girl), who’s getting better and better with each new role. But her performance here also creates mixed feelings. She has a lot of amazing, strong moments. But in a lot of scenes, she was simply performing rather than let us in. The grave voice, the nervous behavior, and the tense eyes… even the way she heavily smokes. This was merely a great actress showing how well rehearsed she was instead of just watching a great character. Surprisingly, Jamie Dorman manages to make a good impression with an understated performance.

The final ten minutes of the film deliver the emotion and craziness of war in a great combo. Pike has an excellent monologue during the interview, with the camera almost fixed on her face. It is a focused moment for her character and for the actress and she delivers the goods here without question. The following sequence, the escape from the hideout, finally succeeds in making us feel inside the conflict. It’s too late to save the entire film, but it is a great ending, especially with the last frame of the destroyed city, when we see how much the destruction has spread. Which only means we can try to slightly grasp how many lives have been destroyed there – and that is quite harrowing.

Despite the problems, “A Private War” is still a good film. Marie Colvin is a great character and the layers and complications of her personality are present – and they are all really interesting to watch. It is not an emotional film and it doesn’t pull us in, but it still manages to challenge us as an audience. And that is always good.

Score: 6/10

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  • Jason

    November 16, 2018 at 5:32 PM

    I saw this trailer once in theaters. Look pretty interesting. Might have to check it out sometime soon. I do love Rosamund Pike….

    • leandromatos1981

      November 16, 2018 at 5:48 PM

      Yes, it is interesting. That’s the curious thing about this film: it works at the same time that it doesn’t work. I know it’s weird…

      • Jason

        November 16, 2018 at 6:25 PM

        Ah, I see. So it’s kind of like the story being told is interesting, but something about the movie doesn’t work.

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