There are distinct and definable differences in how fictionalized narratives and documentary observation are framed cinematically, both in the dictated forms of their medium and how and why they communicate information to the audience. Whereas narrative form offers a lot of latitude in terms of performance, structure, and contextualization, documentary is, while not less subject to a filmmaker’s manipulations, more restricted to the inherent truths of the realities captured, particularly when that documentation is done in instances of intense violence and upheaval. Documentarian Matthew Heineman, renowned for the intense field-reporting documentaries City of Ghosts and Cartel Land, has taken a stab at immortalizing one of his contemporaries with his first fictional feature, A Private War, and while he and star Rosamund Pike manage to capture the persona of their subject, the fictional representation of her life feels limited by Heineman’s blunt documentarian style.
Pike embodies Marie Colvin, a war correspondent who was well-known for entering hostile situations to gain honest perspectives from the civilians suffering firsthand at the hands of military conflicts. Her work brought her to Sri Lanka, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, and the lengths she went to witness atrocities is an astounding testament to journalistic conviction, as well as a testament to Colvin’s rocky relationship with her own depression. Colvin kept very few people close to her, including photographer Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan) and editor Sean Ryan (Tom Hollander), because those are the people who had to watch her self-destruct under the self-imposed pressures of sharing these stories with the world.
More than anything, A Private War succeeds as a performance piece and character study, as Pike delivers some of her finest work in a role that is challenging as it is necessarily nuanced. Colvin was a woman of singular and emphatic drive, acerbic and caustic to mask the persistent pain she suffered as she continued to aggravate a diagnosis of PTSD. Pike conveys Colvin as a woman of two selves: the first is empathetically driven to see the greatest horrors of our time to provide some measure of justice in sharing the victims’ stories, and the second is the toxic by-product of constantly resuming the role of the first, abusing substances and reliving the traumas of facing the persistent imminence of her own death. It’s a dark existence that Pike neither overplays nor understates, and her performance is the glue that keeps the film together.
Which is good, because as a narrative, A Private War suffers from something of a lack of purpose. It gets stuck in a holding pattern of showing the alternate halves of Colvin’s life, either glorifying her journalistic achievements or examining her inner demons, and the two halves of the film only really relate through juxtaposition. This may be purposeful as the “Private” part of the title, but it leaves the narrative devoid of arcs or especially deep insight into Colvin or her work. Heineman is so committed to shooting this fictionalized version of Colvin’s life in naturalistic and authentic terms that he neglects to consider that narrative fiction isn’t merely observational but can explore theme and story through visual cues. There’s nothing actually wrong with A Private War on a technical level, but the closest the film gets to actual narrative structure is the continual transition between professional and private life as title cards countdown to the final story Colvin ever reported, which feels disappointingly hollow.
Overall, this doesn’t make A Private War a bad film, merely an unimpressive one. Had anyone with one iota less talent than Rosamund Pike taken on this role, the film would have fallen apart from its own disinterest in its storytelling. But Pike’s stellar work speaks for itself, and thankfully it also speaks on behalf of the film and on behalf of Marie Colvin.