Witnesses to war, but seldom onscreen

Rosamund Pike stars as legendary war correspondent Marie Colvin in director Matthew Heineman’s fact-based film|©️ AVIRON PICTURES

The voice has stayed with Rosamund Pike. For the new movie “A Private War,” the British actress transformed her posh, rounded speech into a distinc- tive American rasp, to play Marie Colvin, the Long Island-raised, London- based journalist who was killed in Syria in 2012. On tough occasions, Pike still imagines using her tone: It suggests a woman who gets things done.

That voice, along with the patchColvin wore after she lost an eye to agrenade in Sri Lanka, became her call-ing cards as she catapulted into warzones around the world, and wrotedeeply felt, courageously reported arti-cles for The Sunday Times in London. “APrivate War,” now in theaters, aims torealistically portray her struggles andexplain why she persisted. And it could have scarcely arrived at a more apt, andfraught, time.

“This movie has all Marie’s gesturesand movements,” the CNN and PBS an-chor Christiane Amanpour, who knew Colvin, wrote in an email. “She waskilled, probably directly targeted, forgetting the truth out about the Syria war.It’s especially relevant given the mur-der of the Saudi journalist Jamal Kha-shoggi” last month. “He too was simplyspeaking the truth.”

Colvin’s story — her rise as an inter- national correspondent reporting on conflicts in the Middle East, the Balkans and elsewhere; her bravery going into hostile territory to document the civil- ian cost of war; and ultimately, her death while covering a relentless battle in the Syrian city of Homs — is in some ways tailor-made for the big screen. She was undeniably gutsy but suffered post- traumatic stress disorder and other psy- chological and physical ills from wit- nessing so much trauma. She was also witty, gregarious and stylish: a natural cinematic heroine.

Women like Colvin — and those before her, like the British correspondentClare Hollingworth, who broke the newsof World War II in Europe, and pioneer-ing photojournalists like Gerda Taro andDickey Chapelle — have been at thefront of conflicts for a century or more,delivering rich material, with fascinat-ing personal tales.

|©️ SHEILA MASSON/ASSOCIATED PRESS

And yet “A Private War” is one of only a handful of Hollywood features that putthe focus squarely on female war correspondents in the field — perhaps onlythe third or fourth such film in decades. By contrast, dozens have followed malejournalists abroad, said Matthew Ehrlich, author of “Journalism in the Movies” and a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Cham-paign.


“Especially today, audiences needto know the risks and sacrifices,the strength and commitment, ofreporters” like Marie Colvin.

Amanpour said that accurately re-flecting these women in pop culture “ismassively important. Especially sincefemales in the field are often portrayedas frivolous, slightly hysterical, sexually promiscuous appendages! I still feel sobad for Martha Gellhorn, the brilliant WWII correspondent, who’s foreverknown as Ernest Hemingway’s (third)wife.” (The HBO movie about her is“Hemingway & Gellhorn” — a secondbilling she wouldn’t have tolerated.)

“Just like in every other walk of life, if you don’t have equal representation, you don’t get the full story,” Amanpour said. “Marie and I and all the other wom- en now in this field bring an essential di- mension to war reporting.”

In “Bearing Witness,” a 2005 televi- sion documentary about female war journalists, Colvin described the ideal- ism that drove her. War “is what hap- pens to people, and no one wants it,” she said then. “It’s what you try to bear wit- ness to. That makes me think you can sometimes make a difference — attempt to, anyway.”

In Hollywood, Pike said, “If Marie had been a man,” her biopic “would have been made maybe more easily. And there probably would have been many actors raising their hand” for the part.

Playing Colvin left an emotional mark; even discussing the production and what Colvin witnessed left her queasy, she said. “I had to be her at all times, which meant carrying her in my body and my bones,” she said. She dressed in Colvin’s clothes and worked with a movement coach to recreate the way the reporter carried tension in her neck. In between takes, she studiously watched Colvin on tape.

Authenticity was paramount for the director, Matthew Heineman. “The film, for me, is both a homage to Marie and a homage to journalism,” he said.

Heineman made his name with docu- mentaries like “City of Ghosts” (2017), about citizen journalists fighting ISIS in Syria, and the Oscar-nominated “Cartel Land” (2015), which confronted the Mexican drug trade. He served as cine- matographer on those films, shooting in sometimes dangerous conditions (he kept the camera rolling while dodging bullets in “Cartel Land”). So he had a sense of kinship with the way Colvin pursued her subject.

“Having felt those same adrenaline rushes,” he said, “that same crazy back- wards desire to be in these places, to tell these stories, and simultaneously feel- ing that bizarreness of coming home,” he felt: “I had to make this film.” (It’s based on a Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner.)

“A Private War” is not just Hei- neman’s first feature: it was also his first time on a movie set. In the monthslong shoot in London and Jordan, where they filmed the war scenes, he leaned on his cinematographer, Robert Richardson, a favorite of Martin Scorsese whose cred- its also include “Platoon” and “Born on the Fourth of July.”

And he had a guide in Paul Conroy, Colvin’s longtime photographer, who was with her when she died and was gravely wounded himself. His experi- ences are also the subject of a new docu- mentary, “Under the Wire,” adapted from his book of the same name. For “A Private War,” Conroy, who’s played by Jamie Dornan (“50 Shades of Grey”), was on set daily as an adviser, Hei- neman said.

Much of the realism came from supporting players in Jordan: for scenes setin Iraq and Homs, Heineman chose people displaced from there, interviewing them to find those whose experiences matched the characters’. “They weren’ tacting,” he said. “They were telling theirreal stories. And those tears were realtears.”

Moments like a group of Iraqi women chanting a prayer as a mass grave oftheir relatives is uncovered were notscripted. For Pike, it was an agony beyond performance. “At times, I had towalk off set; my feelings were churningin my body to such an extreme degree, it was unbearable,” she said. “Bearing wit-ness is actually unbearable.” But, sheadded, “It’s a pain that you feel is important, because the truth is there.”

|©️ AVIRON PICTURES

The emotional fallout from being awar correspondent isn’t always de-picted on screen, perhaps because maleleads are shown as swashbuckling he-roes, Ehrlich, the professor, said. Hei-neman, though, thought of his film as apsychological thriller. “It’s getting in-side her mind and understanding thedamage this did to her,” he explained. “Trying to personify PTSD, which issomething I’ve experienced personally,and I know a lot of friends who’ve suf-fered, both as journalists and as vets.”

Amanpour, who was both a competi- tor and a colleague of Colvin — during the Arab Spring, they collaborated on the last interview with the Libyan leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi — said that PTSD is “the sad and brutal side of what we do.” The strength of “A Private War,” she added, was in not shying away from it. “Especially today, audiences need to know the risks and sacrifices, the strength and commitment, of report- ers like Marie.”

In 2016, Colvin’s family sued the Syrian government for wrongful death, of-fering a trove of evidence alleging thatPresident Bashar al-Assad’s regimeknowingly attacked her and other jour-nalists. The government has not re-sponded to the suit.

“A Private War” ends with chillingstatistics: in the six years since Colvin’sdeath, at least 500,000 people have been killed in Syria. Given the carnage, it’shard to imagine that one story mighthave an impact. Colvin held on to hopethat it would: for her final broadcast, onCNN, hours before she was killed, shedetailed the death of a Syrian baby boy.

“I think that she believed, as I believe, that to get people to actually care, you need to tell personal stories,” Heineman said. “And I think that’s also something that plagued her, and that plagues me, is: Do people care, will people care, is it worth it? Are my words going to mat- ter?”