By Joe Hammerschmidt
There have been few documentaries that can sit well in the brain as they would in the stomach, not always well but no less considerably essential viewing. Seeing what Matthew Heineman had accomplished with his Oscar-nominated war exam, 2015’s Cartel Land, proof existed in every shot over how there could be room for docs that could feed the mind yet turn the stomach, and still be worth coming back to as a real cinematic reference watch. Now, he’s taken his knowledge of close-up, close-hand, intimate filmmaking to a traditional narrative structure in A Private War, a natural step up with the focus no longer so much on a war, but on the individuals responsible to bring the words and images home. Enlisting the help of an impressive cast led by Rosamund Pike and Jamie Dornan, that may only be part of the job completed. Actually capturing, and overtly dramatizing the journey, that is a separate, yet conjoined aspect, which doesn’t seem to work here as well as it could have. It’s one of those trickier beats that a director must accomplish in a certain way, or you lose the audience. And regrettably, frustratingly I did find myself lost amid the stark battlefield imagery lacking an acceptable foreground.
Pike portrays American-born journalist Marie Colvin, a longtime reporter for London’s Sunday Times with her eyes always in her heart, guiding her wherever the epicenter of any great war story is, whether the land she’s stepping on or the people she’s interviewing. The focus for Heineman and screenwriter Arash Amel (The Titan) is on the last 12 or so years of her life, essentially foreshadowing her 2012 death in the heart of a Syrian stranglehold by a tracked electronic device. Paul Conroy (Dornan) is her photographer, taking every snapshot imaginable of what she’s seeing from her view, albeit with only one eye (the other lost during a 2001 photo op in Sri Lanka). Together, they more or less roam around the Middle East, with Colvin constantly questioning her own professionalism, her personal life, and naturally her own purpose for existing, hence the title’s loose double meaning, a war within a war.
Reflecting on the film seems easier than having tried to work through it in a packed theater, and Heineman does not make it an easy ride, though one that may make a bit more sense on a second viewing. Candid as he’s aiming for, in-depth as I’d expect, I just had the most difficult time attempting to keep my focus on what was happening to and for Miss Colvin, like there was just little to no connectivity abounding. Amel’s script, inspired by a biographical work on Colvin jumps from one place to the next without being eased into the next point of reference, where it’s almost easy to forget where one small aspect of her career has ended, and the next one starts.
Pike makes the best go in every scene, so does Dornan, and to a smaller degree, that of Tom Hollander as Colvin’s headstrong editor, whose only goal is just to keep her out of harm, and to a rather underused Stanley Tucci as a fleeting love interest. They, along with an impressive grouping of Syrian-born extras, incorporated for accuracy truly bring their best efforts to the playing field, but this first viewing left a lot of that slightly muted on my end. Quick to take very seriously, yet also difficult to follow seriously. It’s not as if Heineman’s directorial strengths falter when following a narrative, it’s more he’s rough on the edges to translate.
We do get an amazing starring turn out of Pike, easily her best since the decadent lead in Gone Girl. Only in the last few years has she evolved into an enriching character-driven performer, where she lends much of her own self to a role and vice versa, and Marie Colvin may forever stand as another great step upward in her trajectory, even if it may not be enough to grant her a second Oscar nomination. Sadly, it isn’t, but fingers crossed it will help her case in the future. Needless to say, I was just as impressed by the direct choices Heineman followed through on, making it both on Colvin, and on the stories she’s covering, her inability to really follow a straight curve for how to report, really going deeper than any Western journalist could. One could tell she cared, so of course, Heineman and DoP Robert Richardson (The Hateful Eight) were looking for the most, placing her convincingly within those deep, treacherous surroundings. The cinematography would be most deserving of awards attention if nothing else than for its central realism; the storyline may not toggle back and forth against scenery unhesitantly, yet that symmetry between urban London, and the varying landscapes of Jordan, is simply undeniable.
Punctuated at the end by an entrancing original song from the great Annie Lennox, I knew there was more I wasn’t seeing out of A Private War that I know was possible had I been looking hard enough. There’s much to celebrate, plenty to enjoy, while also enduring the harsh reality of Marie Colvin’s career pursuits, yet I may not be the strongest voice to judge its best merits in this case. Its lack of consistencies in terms of its skittering plot rather spoiled the tale being unspun, but what Heineman succeeds with can make up for such a small amount of quarreling. It won’t be the only film this year where it could get better with another look or two, so best not to let it slip past one’s fingers if one is so engrossed in the material. This is still a wonderful film despite its apparent stumbles, and one whose compassion for hardnosed journalism, and toward speaking on the voice of a broken side of human society, may not be so easily equaled, regardless of how many weeks in the cinematic year remain. (C+)
A Private War opens in Seattle this weekend, AMC Pacific Place and Cinemark Lincoln Square; wide expansion on November 16; rated R for disturbing violent images, language throughout, and brief sexuality/nudity; 110 minutes.