Whenever prestige picture season rolls around, the usual glut of biographical dramas tend to follow. We’ve seen quite a few roll through town by this point of the year, ranging from the crowd-pleasing Bohemian Rhapsody to the quickly forgotten First Man. It feels like the genre is taking more of a stab at becoming a marketable industry, rather than just a prestige player. Yet for all of the activity this sort of film has seen in recent times, A Private War feels like a refreshing film in a time that sees its genre, and its serious tone, often used for awards consideration and now box office profit.
A Private War focuses on the career of Marie Colvin (Rosamund Pike), famed war correspondent for The Sunday Times’ foreign desk. Between 1986 and 2012, Colvin was drawn to covering the most dangerous, most interesting conflict zones that weren’t part of common news coverage. Starting with her first assignment to Sri Lanka, and ending in her final assignment in Homs, Syria, shortly after the Arab Spring, the film focuses on her life as defined by her career and the people she knew.
There are two decisions that A Private War made from its inception that ensured its success: the hiring of documentary filmmaker Matthew Heineman to helm his first biopic, and the casting of Rosamund Pike to play Colvin herself. The former is a stroke of genius, simply for the fact that while this is a dramatized version of Marie Colvin’s life and career, it feels like a documentary film.
The visual language on display puts you right in the middle of whatever moment Marie’s living through, be it covering a combat zone that’s being shelled, or the moments in her life where she’s falling apart in the quiet of normal day to day events. It makes for an intense viewing experience that allows Heineman to draw on the skills that made Cartel Land and City of Ghosts such noteworthy documentaries.
But of course, the big subject that should, and probably will, spark a lot of discussion is Rosamund Pike’s portrayal of Marie Colvin. While Gone Girl garnered her quite a bit of acclaim, as well as several nominations, during the film’s dance with critics and audiences, Pike has always been a strong performer on screen. A Private War is quite possibly her finest performance, as she treats each scenario she’s placed into with reverence and dramatic gravitas. With a good mix of humor and despair, Rosamund Pike brings Marie Colvin’s legacy to life on the screen in such a way that it’s one of the most vibrant biopic portrayals we’ve ever seen, much less in this year’s market.
It also helps that a supporting cast of notable actors are there to help anchor down Pike’s stellar work in A Private War. Tom Hollander’s role as Colvin’s Sunday Times editor, Sean Ryan, is a particularly noteworthy occurrence, as this is his second time out in the biopic rodeo this year, the first being in the role of Jim Beach in Bohemian Rhapsody. Unlike that previous film, however, Hollander’s talents are properly displayed in this film, as he’s given more of a range of behaviors and emotions to play around with.
Also helping out are Jamie Dornan, as Marie Colvin’s photographer colleague / friend Paul Conroy, and Stanley Tucci, as Marie’s boyfriend, Tony Shaw. Both actors get to shine in their own respective ways. Much like Rosamund Pike, all of her supporting colleagues balance humor and serious emotion in their telling of the tale.
With the state of the world being what it is, and the attention being paid to the profession of journalism and how it’s regarded at large, A Private War is being released at the perfect time. Marie Colvin didn’t shy away from the ugliest “unknown” conflicts the world had to offer, and while she had personal reasons that drew her to such stories, she also did it because they were stories she felt had to be told. A Private War tells Marie Colvin’s story, which is just as vital as any conflict that she’d covered, and it does so with respect for its subject and the audience. It should not be missed.