Tracking the latter years of Colvin’s astonishing career with London’s Sunday Times and her collaboration with war photographer Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan), the film follows the tenacious, seemingly fearless journalist (Pike) from the early 2000s to her 2012 death while covering the Syrian civil war in Homs. Determined to tell the human stories behind war and give voice to the voiceless, Colvin repeatedly puts herself on the front lines of the world’s deadliest conflicts, from Iraq to Libya, Syria and beyond. Gradually plagued by PTSD-induced flashbacks – which she attempts to quell with booze – and having already lost an eye while on assignment in Sri Lanka, Colvin forges ahead, frequently putting her life in peril as she takes notes and interviews her subjects while dodging bullets and bombs.
Helmed by Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Matthew Heineman (City of Ghosts, Cartel Land), it’s not hugely surprising that A Private War possesses an appropriately documentary-esque feel… so much so that, as I watched, I wondered if the victims of war being interviewed onscreen were, in fact, not actors but real-life victims of war telling the true stories of their own harrowing experiences. There are a few disorienting montage sequences that play with time and place, and which left me a little confused, but they’re thankfully fleeting and, perhaps, meant to mirror Colvin’s own erratic and troubled headspace.
This is by far Pike’s meatiest role to date and she devours it, mimicking Colvin’s accent and speech cadence perfectly, but also capturing her passion, fierce determination, courage and (sometimes reckless) drive. It’s also prime Oscar-bait material, so I wouldn’t be surprised if she finds herself with an award nomination or two in the coming months.
But the real revelation for me was Jamie Dornan. What the WHAT?! Who knew this guy was such a terrific actor?! Forget the one-note, widely panned albatross of the Fifty Shades series of films – he’s wonderful in this. Charming, funny, moving and authentic, especially since his Conroy is essentially the voice of reason amid the chaos, repeatedly urging Colvin to choose safety over story. The filmmakers smartly cast someone who’ll genuinely surprise and delight audiences… especially anyone with a preconceived notion of the extent of his range. Supporting players like Stanley Tucci, Tom Hollander and Nikki Amuka-Bird are also strong.
Sometimes difficult to watch but compelling from start to finish, A Private War sort of does what its central figure aimed to do through her work: shine a light on an important but otherwise unseen component of global conflict. In this case, a woman unafraid to put her mission above herself.