The First Casualty of News

A Private War (Matthew Heineman, 2018)

Marie Colvin was a female war correspondent, following in the footsteps of Martha Gellhorn (and Kate Adie), reporting under fire from many of the hell holes of the world. We know what war correspondents are like from films — hardbitten, tough, driven, sociopathic and unable to maintain normal relationships, slave to the bottle and traumatised if they’d but admit it. It’s still unusually to see a women in this role on film, although since at least the 1930s journalism has been an acceptable job for a woman on screen.

In 2012 Colvin and Rémi Ochlik were both killed by an improvised explosive device in the city of Homs, Syria. We should know this going into the film, but after the first caption locating us in Homs subsequent ones let us know how many years are left to her death. It’s as if we’re not trusted. We’re also not trusted to know what journalism is — or should be — as Colvin is repeatedly given speeches that would seem to be taken from journalism textbooks.

The script, frankly, clunks.

Pike does her best, although the decision to begin with a voiceover from Covin herself (and to close with footage of that speech) makes a truth claim and fact check comparison more prominent than the film can support. Her on-screen husband David Irens (Greg Wise) and later boyfriend Tony Shaw (Stanley Tucci) are clearly not Patrick Bishop or Richard Flaye, the real world equivalents. Some of the rival journalists were rather different than depicted. Her meeting with photographer Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan) was rather different than shown.

Does this matter? In adapting, say, a novel, then not. With The Favourite, Stan and Ollie, and Mary Queen of Scots, just to mention the last three biopics I’ve seen, liberties have clearly been taken from the actualite. You wouldn’t want to confuse them with history. But this is a film about the telling of truth, for people unable to tell their one story.

I’d be hard pressed to recall, however, a name of one of those victim of war who wasn’t a reporter. It is she whose background and arc we get. Pike is physically impressive, utterly convincing and believable, although again I think we could have been trusted to see the trauma in her eye(s) rather than a flashback montage and quasi dream sequence. At the same time, the film trusts us to know the context of the four or five warzones she passes through.

At the end, I just felt curiously flat rather than sad or angry, and don’t think that is the fault of any of the performers.

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