Netflix UK film review: A Private War
Bianca Garner | On 22, Jun 2019
Director: Matthew Heineman
Cast: Rosamund Pike, Jamie Dornan, Tom Hollander, Stanley Tucci
Watch A Private War online in the UK: Netflix UK / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play / Sky Store
Biopics are always hard to pull off, especially when the subject has had a life like Marie Colvin’s. Colvin was an American journalist who worked as a foreign affairs correspondent for The Sunday Times from 1985 until her death. She was the first person to interview Gaddafi after the 1986 US bombings on Libya. Colvin’s primary focus was the Middle East, but she also covered conflicts in Chechnya, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka and East Timor. Sadly, Colvin died while covering the siege of Homs in Syria. Before her death, she was interviewed by CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, and described the bombardment of Homs as the worst conflict she had ever experienced.
Colvin was 56 years old when she died. Rosamund Pike, who plays her, is 40 years old. There’s no denying a sense that Pike is slightly too young for the role. She seems a little too polished and glamorous to be this hardened journalist, but she pulls off a convincing impression of liquor-drinking, chain-smoking Colvin.
A Private War is based on a 2012 Vanity Fair article about Colvin by Marie Brenner, but it doesn’t really work as a movie. While Pike’s performance is impressive, the film feels too bloated, as director Matthew Heineman tries to cram Colvin’s entire career into a runtime of 110 minutes. We seem to jump quickly from one event to the next, and we never get a chance to fully absorb the action and narrative. We also know the ending of the film, as the incident is set up at the start.
Screenwriter Arash Amel decides to approach Colvin’s story by focusing on key episodes such as her losing her eye in 2001, being treated for PTSD and meeting war photographer Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan). Each chapter informs us just how long it is until the tragic incident in Homs, which distracts and feels quite jarring, as we can never truly become immersed in the movie.
Heineman is perhaps best known for his documentaries Cartel Land and City of Ghosts, and he certainly knows how to direct action sequences in a conflict setting. The film’s cinematography by Robert Richardson really captures this nightmarish world, although it sometimes feels a little too dizzying.
A Private War works when we are in these war zones with Colvin, whether it be the fast-paced nighttime trek with the Tamil Tigers, where Colvin and her crew are ambushed by the Sri Lankan Army, or the tense, panic attack-inducing journey into Homs. However, the film becomes slow paced and mundane when we switch to Colvin back in the UK. We see Colvin’s relationship with Tony Shaw (Stanley Tucci) develop, but the film doesn’t touch upon her other relationships, such as the suicide of her second husband, Bolivian journalist Juan Carlos Gumucio. Instead, the personal aspects of Colvin’s life seem hurried and glossed over, as we are suddenly pulled back into the action with very little warning.
The supporting cast also feel underused. While Dornan proves he’s more than just a pretty face, he seems a little too passive and not allowed to fully explore his character. Tucci is fine, but his role is little more than just a cameo. Tom Hollander also delivers a good performance as Sean Ryan, The Sunday Times’ foreign editor, but his scenes with Pike’s Colvin are too short and sweet.
Overall, Colvin’s story and the siege of Homs is covered to better effect in the excellent documentary Under the Wire, which goes into greater depth about Colvin’s death and the story afterwards, including Conroy and the other journalists’ escape from Homs. A Private War collapses under the weight of its own ambition, but it’s worth watching for Pike’s stellar performance alone.
A Private War is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.