Film Festival Movie Review

Film Review: A PRIVATE WAR: A Formulaic Story of an Extraordinary Person [LFF 2018]

Rosamund Pike A Private War

LFF 2018 A Private War Review

A Private War (2018) Film Review from the 62nd Annual London Film Festival, a movie directed by Matthew Heineman, starring Rosamund Pike, Jamie Dornan, Stanley Tucci, Tom Hollander, Corey Johnson and Faye Marsay.

Despite its failure to achieve greatness, A Private War does honour the legacy of its real-life protagonist. Its technical proficiency is on point and necessary for the war-zone setting of the story. Rosamund Pike’s engrossing performance more than matches that surrounding intensity and is rightfully superior to every other aspect of the motion picture.

The film follows journalist Marie Colvin’s terrifying journey that takes her through various modern battlegrounds. The whole thing culminates with the currently ongoing war in Syria, which is, admittedly and ultimately the political angle and point of the film. This astoundingly brave woman goes to dangerous places, sees the tragedies with her own eyes, writes the hell out of it and reports back to her superiors. From start to finish the film depicts scenes of deep depression, semi-intense action and mostly PG-13 sequences of regular people suffering the cost of war. There are short moments when humor is added in a failed attempt to minimize the smothering impact of the film’s thick gloomy atmosphere.

Rosamund Pike Shines

The Academy Award-nominated actress fully embodies that tired, hopeless but determined personality. It is the result of her character’s decades-long experiences in the worst places on Earth. Some people face things that are so horrifying that the human mind is incapable of processing them – not immediately and maybe not ever. That’s where Marie Colvin went, even though the film never really properly takes us there.

Pike completely sells that prolonged, hellish state of shock. As a matter of fact, that look of hers is far more arresting than the film’s depiction of Syria or Sri Lanka’s battlefields. It is reminiscent to the face of the boy from Elem Klimov’s Come and See. It is the expression of a young person with beautiful features that has been terrorized by emotional trauma – and that eye-patch has nothing to do with it. Unfortunately, the film struggles to dig deep both in the character of Colvin and the situations she comes across. The approach is one-sided, audience-friendly and quite safe, when the world surrounding the tragic hero is anything but.

Excellent Performances

The performances are all good with the exception of Pike, who is straight up superb. Jamie Dornan is in the role of Colvin’s most trusted and closest colleague. He shares all the horrors with her. The guy has an undeniable charisma, which is evident here. It is the type of presence that gives the situation some positive energy even as another mortar shell hits the characters’ hiding place. Stanley Tucci is reasonably cast as the heroine’s romantic partner and gets a few good comedic moments. Tom Hollander delivers a solid supporting performance as Colvin’s boss, which allows the main character to shine even more.

Overwhelming Words, Underwhelming Action

The film’s subject matter is dreary to say the least. The film-makers attempt to balance the horrors of the protagonist’s line of work and her more human, everyday life moments. The balance is achieved but the impact of the dangers Colvin faces is significantly decreased. The horror and shock never quite hit on a visceral or gut level when we are out there in the field along with Pike’s character.

There are several reasons for that. First off, there is quite a lot of talking of terrifying experiences, the losses of the common people, the merciless leaders of brutal murderous regimes and so on.  The images don’t quite match the words. Obviously, the film-makers are trying to stick to the daily routine of Colvin – she spends a lot of her time writing big words. But when the action goes out of her bedroom and into the real world, the expectations built up by her thoughts, words and written works are not satisfied. It all depends on how emotionally susceptible the individual viewer is but ultimately, he or she might inevitably get the sense that the film is all bark and no bite.

The Horrors of War Fail to Hit Hard Enough

So, what do we see and how effectively the horrors of those fear-inducing locations are depicted? As far as the victims are concerned, we see buried skeletons, a moving scene of a father and his dying child, a 5-second shot of the remains of a dead reporter and that’s about it. You can literally open your internet browser right now, search for the conflicts depicted in A Private War, remove the Safe Filter and you will see and what’s worse – feel much more just by looking at still images. The film fails on a visceral level in comparison to many other films – Blood Diamond, Beasts of No Nation, Lord of War, The Hurt Locker and others. All of these show the human cost of war in a much more powerful fashion.

Some of the scenes involving imminent danger are thrilling. As it happens the very first accident, in which Pike’s character finds herself in, as well as the last one work the best and they don’t last longer than a minute combined. The level of fear is nothing special. The bombs fall, the sound design is solid, you are taken by surprise and it’s over. You don’t see the remains of innocents, you don’t hear the screams of a child. That is not to say that gory imagery is the only thing that can provoke a deeper kind of emotional response. However, it is an element that is sorely lacking here, particularly when the videos, images and articles that are already available to the public are taken into consideration. The impact of war on ordinary people seems to lack detail and it doesn’t hit as hard as it does in many other films.

You are never close to being as shaken as the main characters are. The film tries to carry the idea of revealing the absolute truth. So naturally what we want to see is something shocking and shattering that breaks the boundaries of what’s bearable and goes beyond late night news footage. But it doesn’t. So, all in all, Rosamund Pike’s war-scarred expression and her performance that beautifully depicts the mindset of a deeply troubled woman is the most emotionally impactful element of the film. In A Private War, the horror can be better felt through the actress’ face than through the actual places, where the real suffering happens.

A Simplistic View of a Complex Problem

A Private War’s script brings to mind some very interesting questions but it doesn’t investigate them. All that this 2-hour story tells us is – this was a great woman, a hero and her work has to be completed. That is perfectly valid. The truth is, however, that there is so much more than that – questions, ideas that can be further explored and which are touched upon but never delved into here.

For example, in the process of witnessing Colvin’s tough, repetitive lifestyle in detail, viewers will inevitably ask themselves if any of this is worth it. In the real world, is anybody even responding appropriately to the reports produced by the suicidal ventures of people like Colvin. When was the last time that the leaders who command armies and proceed to wage wars in civilian areas were influenced by or even cared about the writings of these brave people. This a terrifying question that is never once asked but is extremely logical. That question could have brought in a considerable amount of drama in the film but it is almost entirely omitted.

There is a scene in the film, which is as interesting as it is mildly moving, in which Hollander’s character begs Pike’s to keep working and doing what she is doing because she is the hope of millions of people. In that very same scene, Colvin accuses her boss by saying that he only needs her in order to gain his awards and reap the benefits of her work. The whole scene is constructed as if to once again remind us of the heroic nature of the heroine’s actions. Despite the cleverly placed uplifting music and Hollander’s teary performance, it is very difficult to not think about the fact that, ultimately, she is going there with almost zero hope for actual change and that it all eventually results in nothing more than her boss’ improved ratings and her salary (whatever that was, it wasn’t enough).

The direction of Matthew Heineman is hellbent on convincing us that this is a clean-cut situation of good versus evil. He is trying to sell the idea that a hero is working for the noble newspaper and together they are trying to save the civilians from yet another evil dictator. But that kind of thinking feels just too naïve and simplified for a situation as terrible and as complicated. She is a slave to that job just as much as the thousands of innocent victims are slaves to the world leaders who are dropping bombs on their heads. That connection is never made and it is an essential one. It is not about good versus evil, it is about the powerful trampling on the weak on both sides.

The Real Questions

Rosamund Pike’s protagonist says several times over the course of the film that the real victims are the normal, unarmed people. This is the film’s most important message. Nothing else matters – only the peace in their homeland, their survival and the preservation of their way of life. And yet, in the final scenes of the film, it feels like the call to action is in fact – more military action. It simply feels out-of-place.

What is the difference between the bombs of a cruel dictator and the bombs of the armies sent to stop him? Both will hit innocent people. What is the point of good people heading out to the hell of war when they will end up in a coffin, their lives ruined, their families – broken apart? These big questions are not even asked in this film and these are the questions that matter and are asked by the victims. A Private War says that there is a simple solution to this ugly mess. All the greatest war stories are unable to provide answers. The loss of innocent lives amidst a major conflict is a senseless reality and painting that picture as a simple good versus evil story is silly. This area is a grey as it gets and the victims, including Colvin, are right in the middle of it.

A Powerful Performance Honouring a Great Woman

A Private War does justice to a hero but fails to explore the intricacies of the nightmarish world she inhabits and doesn’t quite succeed in depicting the terror of modern battlefields and war zones. Pike’s performance is superb and is enough to take the audience on a moving, albeit consistently one-note journey. See Heineman’s film to learn the story of this extraordinary person and to admire the actress’ exceptional skills. Do not expect to be graced with an original idea or an innovative perception on what is happening out there or how can it be stopped.

Rating: 6/10

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About the author

Deyan Angelov

My name is Deyan Angelov and I am 25. I have written articles for FilmBook. I graduated from the University of London, Royal Holloway in 2014. I have worked as an air operator, sound recorder and camera operator for different TV stations. I have participated in a variety of internships at Nu Boyana Film Studios.

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