On the surface A Private War ticks all the boxes for the kind of film the Academy Awards adores. A culturally relevant yet moving real life story? Tick. A lead actor transforming themselves beyond recognition? Tick. A haunting song performed by Annie Lennox over the closing credits? Tick. However, here lies the problem with A Private War: it’s all surface and no heart.
A Private War attempts to tell the remarkable story of Marie Colvin, The Sunday Times war correspondent, who spent her life shining light on the injustices that many innocent civilians faced across the Middle East. First time feature director Matthew Heineman confidently navigates us through war torn environments and shows all the innocent lives jeopardised by a government’s decision to go to war, but he never manages to pin down the real Marie Colvin.
Throughout the film we see her deterioration both physically, in a horrific scene where she yanks out a loose tooth, and mentally, with her constant PTSD-triggered flashbacks of dead bodies, which she attempts to numb with excessive alcohol. In one particularly disturbing scene we see flashes of these decomposed bodies cut with Marie having sex in her hotel room. The point of this scene is unclear though, is it to show how Marie is constantly being haunting by the mental toll of her job? Is it to highlight the fragility of the human body?
Where the film’s strengths lie though is in its cast. Tom Hollander has the rather thankless task of playing Sean Ryan, a character whose name is as bland as his function in the story: the pushy editor, but proves himself yet again to be one of Britain’s finest supporting actors. Jamie Dornan provides a good everyman surrogate for the audience as Colvin’s photographer but spends the whole film searching for his accent which seems to be wandering everywhere from Liverpool to London before heading back to his native Northern Ireland.
However, this is Rosamund Pike’s film and her dedicated portrayal of Marie Colvin should have earned at least an Oscar nomination, perhaps instead of Lady Gaga’s not so imaginative portrayal as a pop star in A Star is Born. While Colvin looks nothing like the 39-year-old English actress, Pike puts aside vanity and embraces the frayed hair, no makeup and the unmistakable eye patch of a woman who cared more about her work than what people thought about her appearance.
So spot on is Pike’s imitation of her deep grizzled New York accent that when we hear a voiceover from the real Colvin at the end of the film I believed it was still Pike until it is revealed to be the war journalist herself. Despite this perfect casting and impressive set pieces, what is left feels like an otherwise by-the-numbers biopic that lacked anything interesting to say.