PLOT The story of Long Island-born war correspondent Marie Colvin.
CAST Rosamund Pike, Jamie Dornan, Stanley Tucci
RATED R (disturbing imagery, brief sexuality and language)
BOTTOM LINE An intelligent and sophisticated biopic with a tour-de-force performance from Pike. Now playing in Manhattan; Opens Friday on Long Island.
“Fight for Truth — Punch a Journalist,” reads a sticker you might see on a passing car these days. It’s a clever aphorism that captures a popular mood, and it’s good for a chuckle as long as you don’t think about the journalists who get killed or murdered — 45 this year, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists — while trying to gather information and give us the news. Matthew Heineman’s “A Private War” tells the story of one such reporter, Marie Colvin, who risked her life covering violent conflicts around the world for more than 25 years. Played by a commanding Rosamund Pike, Colvin braved far worse than crabby motorists in her long and colorful career.
Colvin was a Long Island native, raised in East Norwich, but became a star at London’s Sunday Times, making her that rarest of breeds, an American embraced by the British. Pike plays Colvin as a funny, flinty, imposing woman who guarded her privacy and kept even her lovers at a distance, perhaps because every new assignment meant she might never see them again. Returning from Sri Lanka with an eye patch — the result of an explosion that blinded her left eye — she cuts an even more impressive figure at dinner parties and awards banquets, yet seems to end most such evenings alone. “Look at you,” says one soon-to-be-ex. “You were so beautiful.”
Colvin’s struggle to merge her horrific work life and her well-appointed home life is what gives “A Private War” its insightful title. (Arash Amel wrote the screenplay from a Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner.) Out in the Middle East, alongside hard-charging colleagues like Paul Conroy (Colvin’s longtime photographer, played by Jamie Dornan), she functions at an extremely high level; in London, she drinks copiously to keep memories of death and tragedy at bay. We can almost hear Colvin sigh with gratitude when she meets a wealthy, slightly rakish businessman (Stanley Tucci, making a fictional role seem very real) who provides sex and affection with no demands.
What’s missing in this compelling character study is a clear dramatic arc. In chapter headings, the film counts down to Colvin’s death in 2012, while covering the siege of Homs in Syria — a somewhat effective tension builder, but still not the same as a bona-fide narrative. Nevertheless, Pike is riveting as Colvin, a complex personality made of talent, intelligence, vulnerability and empathy. “A Private War” is a not-so-gentle reminder of the value of a free press, and what it sometimes costs.