The film A Private War follows the real life of Marie Colvin, a journalist who covered stories of war and conflict from ahead of the front lines in places from Iraq and Afghanistan to Sri Lanka and Syria, but its greater contribution may be the light it shines on the human cost of conflict.
Marie Colvin explains a point to her friend Paul Conroy in the 2018 film, A Private War.
Spoiler alert: This article focuses on Marie Colvin and how the new movie illuminates her life and contributions, but it does contain some minor spoilers of the movie, including the nature of Colvin’s death and the accompanying scene in the film.
Colvin was famous for donning an eyepatch and wearing designer lingerie under her body armor, but among journalists, she was known for coverage that saved thousands of lives, telling the stories of those besieged by government forces under tyrants. In coverage from East Timor in 1999, she stayed behind when many other journalists fled, keeping the pressure on Indonesian Forces who were besieging 1,500 refugees in a U.N. compound.
Thanks to the efforts of Colvin and other journalists, U.N. personnel remained at the compound until the refugees were able to peacefully leave.
Now, Matthew Heinneman, himself a documentary filmmaker who has covered conflict in Syria, Mexico’s drug wars, and other places, has made a narrative film that aims to not only tell Colvin’s life to whoever might be interested, but also sheds light on the human stories Colvin worked so hard to tell.
Marie Colvin attempts to surrender to government forces in the 2018 movie, A Private War.
“I really didn’t want to make this film as a traditional biopic,” Heinneman told WATM. “I wanted to make it more of a psychological thriller examining what pushes someone to go to these places, and then show the effect that it had on her. I wanted to examine what she suffered from. I wanted to examine PTSD. I wanted to examine all the sort of ramifications of what she saw and what she experienced.”
“At the same time,” he continued, “I also wanted to obviously highlight the work that she did and her effort in shedding light on these stories. I guess in another way, the film is a continuation of her work. Sadly and tragically, what she died covering, the conflict in Syria, has persisted until this day. And I think she would be devastated to know over half a million civilians have been killed since the conflict began. She probably would be in Idlib, or somewhere else right now covering the story if she were still alive.”
Colvin was tragically killed in Homs, Syria, in 2012.
Paul Conroy takes a photo of refugees during the 2018 movie A Private War.
The movie really hits its stride when showing the plight of the vulnerable populations that Colvin covered. While Rosamund Pike and Jamie Dorman do a great job playing Colvin and Paul Conroy — Colvin’s longtime journalism partner — they both fade into the background as victims of government forces or insurgent strikes tell their stories to the journalists.
Heinemann credits this to the people he cast into these “roles.” He didn’t cast actors, he recruited actual refugees to tell the real stories of what they suffered at the hands of Bashir Al-Assad, ISIS, or others. These scenes were filmed in Jordan, a country allied with the U.S., which has accepted large numbers of refugees.
“In the film, [Colvin] is walking into a room filled with Syrian refugees. In real life, the two women that [Rosamund Pike] speaks to are real women from Homs, telling their own real stories and shedding their own real tears.”
Refugees huddle together in the 2018 movie A Private War. The filmmakers recruited actual refugees to play the parts of hunted populations in the movie.
“It’s a really deeply emotional atmosphere on set,” he continued. “In another scene taking place in the hospital in Homs, a man brings his injured son after a mortar attack into the room. He also was from Homs. He was at a protest with his nephew who was shot off his shoulders and bled out in front of him.”
“The grief and the trauma that he brought into that room was almost unbearable. And it really created an atmosphere that felt both incredibly intimate and incredibly real that I think helped give the film the feeling that it has.”
One of the recurring events in the film is that Colvin goes into a combat zone to cover violent events, then heads back home to cities where people want to toast her for her accomplishments. This rapid, hacksaw motion between violent areas and parties is something many veterans can understand, and Heinemann used quick cuts between the two extremes to play up the difference.
Marie Colvin accepts an award for her coverage in the 2018 movie A Private War.
“…those transitions in life are never that graceful, and so, editorially, artistically, stylistically sort of smashing in and out of those two worlds was something that was in the script, but definitely something we played with and discovered a lot in the editor room with our editor, Nick Fenton,” Heinemann said. Quick cuts allowed them to “sort of drop you in and out of these war zones in a way that makes you uncomfortable and disoriented and as it was her experience. As much as possible in this film, I tried to put you in her shoes.”
This focus on Colvin’s experience shifts in the final moments of the film when Colvin is killed by a government airstrike. In the movie, as in real life, Colvin is killed while trying to escape the city with Conroy and a French photographer, Remi Ochlick. Ochlick was also killed and Conroy was severely wounded, barely surviving a massive wound in his leg.
“Dealing with the final moments of her life was something that was quite obviously delicate and something that I ruminated over for many, many, many months.”
Marie Colvin, Remi Ochlick, and Paul Conroy try to escape a Syrian government airstrike in A Private War.
“Through Conroy’s face, we feel her loss so immensely.”
But Conroy’s grief slowly morphs into the grief for a lost city as the camera moves upwards.
“But also as we move away from her and as the camera lifts,” he said. “I wanted to show that she was just one person amidst a sea of devastation, and that yes her death was tragic, but so is all that she was covering.”
“I think journalism and journalists are under attack, obviously, as we’ve seen with the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. When Marie Colvin started her career, the traditional dangers of being a journalist were that of being embedded with soldiers. It was being shot or being blown up by an IED or being hit by a mortar. It wasn’t that journalists were being targeted. And this, obviously, has changed over time.”
A Private War had a limited release on November 2. It has a much wider release, meaning it will likely be available near you, on November 16.