Posts Tagged ‘Matthew Heineman’

Every producer hopes his film is going to at least make its money back, probably, but with some of them this is more of a priority than others. As I have suggested over the last few days, there are films which are funded (if not made) largely with a view to winning awards for their producers and financiers. When one of these films fails to cut through, then, should we automatically consider it a failure? I’m not sure. One of the things I like to believe, sentimental old thing though I may be, is that any good film will eventually find an audience for itself.

What got me thinking along these lines was Matthew Heineman’s A Private War, which is clearly the kind of film which wants to be taken seriously, but which doesn’t quite seem to be cutting through and reaching a mainstream audience like some others. This may be simply due to the subject matter, which largely consists of things which people don’t want to be reminded of, and may indeed be actively trying to forget.

I think I’ve mentioned in the past my occasional tendency to get the Prime Minister of Canada (Justin Trudeau) mixed up with the guy who wrote Iron Man 2 (Justin Theroux); well, I have a similar problem with Marie Helvin (American-born British-based fashionista) and Marie Colvin (American-born British-based war correspondent), too. A Private War should certainly help with the latter issue, being an account of the final years of Colvin’s life.

Rosamund Pike plays Colvin, who as the film starts has been a reporter for the London Sunday Times for about fifteen years. The thing that made Colvin instantly identifiable was the fact she wore an eye-patch, and the attentive viewer will note at once that Colvin’s eyes are both in full working order in the opening scenes. This occasioned a queasy feeling of tension in your correspondent, i.e. me, rather akin to the one I felt during All the Money in the World while waiting for the ear-removal scene: something grisly is inevitably coming.

One does not have to wait too long, as Colvin’s next mission – rather against the wishes of her editor (Tom Hollander) – is to visit rebel forces in Sri Lanka, in full knowledge of the reality that if she is caught by government forces she will be executed. In the course of her work she and her escort are ambushed and a grenade ends her days of stereoscopic vision. Her friends rally round and try to cheer her up by listing other famous people with only one eye: Sammy Davis Jr, Thom Yorke, Moshe Dayan, and so on (no-one mentions Lt. Columbo, oddly enough). Soon enough the iconic eye-patch is in place.

Any sane person would have had enough of putting life and limb in peril at this point, but Colvin goes back to work, and the rest of the film intersperses scenes from her somewhat turbulent life in the UK with a succession of visits to places virtually comprising a record of recent real-world horror: Iraq during the American invasion, Afghanistan during the American occupation, Libya during the Arab Spring uprising, and finally Syria in the early stages of the civil war which is still ongoing. You probably know how the story ends; even if you don’t, it’s easy enough to find out.

With any film based on a true story that has an ending as downbeat as this one, it’s fairly obvious that simply entertaining the audience is not necessarily the object of the exercise. This is frequently quite an uncomfortable watch on many levels, for reasons both visceral and intellectual – the film dwells at length on the conflict in Syria, something which I think future generations will view as a cause of profound shame for western nations for so many reasons.

That the film stays watchable is largely down to the kind of central performance from Rosamund Pike which generally gets called vanity-free, whatever that is really code for. Colvin was reputedly a tough cookie and a difficult woman to get along with, a heavy drinker, a chain-smoker and at one time a sufferer from PTSD (as one character observes, she’s been through more wars than most soldiers), and Pike works hard to get all this up on the screen. The results are undeniably impressive.

(Maybe we should take a moment to reflect on the achievement of Rosamund Pike in establishing herself as a serious, credible actress entirely capable of carrying a movie like this one, especially since she first rose to prominence as Second Girl in a Bond movie – something which always used to be a career graveyard. No doubt it owes something to her willingness to take on roles which are, shall we say, less emollient than those that many American actresses seem entirely comfortable with.)

Pike’s main support comes from Jamie Dornan, playing her photographer Paul Conroy – Dornan seems to be an able actor, but one who’s been most visible (in the cinema, at least) doing projects which are perhaps more lucrative than credible. He is also very good here, as is Hollander, even though the latter is saddled with some fairly ripe and portentous dialogue (he is basically given the job of putting across the film’s message concerning how important reporters like Colvin are). Probably also worth a mention is Raad Rawi, who has the ticklish job of portraying Colonel Gaddafi in a couple of scenes – he manages to deliver a convincing performance while still suggesting someone just a bit unhinged.

That said, despite all the fine acting, the film occasionally feels trite and excessively portentous, threatening to drown the audience in horror – laying it on a bit thick, in other words. The significance of the title is never completely made clear, either – what exactly was Marie Colvin’s private war? The woman’s life stands as a monument to dragging people by the collars and forcing them to confront the things they are complicit in: public, rather than private wars. Perhaps it is simply reflecting the fundamental struggle inside Colvin: genuine footage of the reporter appears, in which she speaks of the fear that accompanied her on all of her assignments (including the self-appointed ones), and yet there was also something in her compelling her to return again and again to places of tremendous danger and speak of what she saw there.

The film never really manages to get to the bottom of what it was that drove Marie Colvin to such lengths of extreme bravery, if bravery it indeed was. But it is very clear and persuasive in arguing that she and war correspondents like her serve a vital role in the modern world (something everyone is aware of – the film touches on this, both in terms of the US Army’s ’embedded reporters’ and insurgents deliberately targeting foreign journalists). The strength of the film’s message, the general quality of its storytelling, and Pike’s performance in particular combine to make this a fine film and one which it is well worth watching.

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