‘A Private War’ Underscores Risks Journalists Take

Oscar nominee Matthew Heineman has often put his life on the line while filming award-winning documentaries such as Cartel Land, chronicling wars of Mexican drug cartels, and throwing a light on the atrocities of the Islamic State group in City of Ghosts.

Now, Heineman is releasing his first feature film, A Private War, about another subject close to his heart: Sunday Times war correspondent Marie Colvin, who staked her life on the war fronts of Sri Lanka, Iraq and Syria in order to bring attention to the plight of war victims. 

In A Private War, Oscar-nominated actress Rosamund Pike transforms herself into Colvin, a gritty, fierce, inquisitive American journalist who dedicated her life to reporting on atrocities around the world. 

Pike evokes the journalist’s inexorable drive to cover wars to show the world the plight of war victims and bring truth to light. She also portrays Colvin as a person suffering from PTSD and addiction to alcohol and to her job. And there was the physical toll. Colvin lost her left eye in a rocket-propelled grenade attack in Sri Lanka in 2001. 

Her actions, presence

“Getting into her physicality, which meant changing everything, I had to learn to smoke convincingly, because for Marie, everything was better with a cigarette — every conversation, every car drive,” Pike told VOA. “I had to see the way with which she gestured with her hands — she had these wide-apart fingers. I had to work out how the eye patch made her angle her head differently — how she could penetrate you and sear you with one eye as good as someone else could dress you down with two.” 

In an onscreen soliloquy about her inner demons as Colvin, Pike outlined the personal conflicts that defined the British journalist. 

“I fear growing old, but then I also fear dying young,” she said. “I am most happy with a vodka martini in my hand, but I can’t stand the fact that the chatter in my head won’t go quiet until there is a quart of vodka inside me. I hate being in a war zone, but I also feel compelled, compelled, to see it for myself.” 

WATCH: ‘A Private War’ Examines War Correspondent’s Physical, Psychological Scars

Regarding Colvin’s heavy drinking, Pike said, “Should we even call it alcoholism? I really had to judge and walk a very fine line and find out where the truth lay, because it is not that we are defining her by a drinking problem. But she clearly had one.” 

Filmmaker Heineman described his deep connection to Colvin. A storyteller who took grave risks to document drug cartels and IS to the world, he wanted to do justice to the complexity of Colvin’s character and her courage as she unflinchingly reported from Homs, Syria, in 2012 during Bashar al-Assad’s heavy bombardment of the city. 

This is where Colvin lost her life. Through Colvin’s commitment, Heineman said he wanted to show the risks that journalists take to uncover the truth to the world. 

Power of storytelling

“Journalists are the bedrock of a free and independent society. You might not always agree with what they say, but the fact that journalism has been politicized, as our whole world has been politicized and our countries have been politicized and divided, is really sad to me,” the filmmaker said. “The fact that journalists have been demonized in this country, in other countries, the fact that a journalist was recently obviously killed, in Turkey [Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi], I think that’s one of the reasons why I make films. 

“I think film, journalism, storytelling has the ability to bring people together to create dialogue, to create two sides of a conversation,” he told VOA. 

As a documentarian, Heineman wanted to give this real-life texture to his film. In a scene where Colvin discovers a mass grave in Iraq, the local women and men gathered around mourning are real victims of war.  

“The women in that scene were Iraqi women crying about real trauma that they experienced, and at the end of that scene, like in any documentary that I made, something unforeseen happened: They started chanting and doing this prayer for the dead,” Heineman said. 

Pike related a similar experience she had while filming an unscripted scene with a refugee woman huddled with her kids in a safe house. The scene was depicting the siege of Homs. 

Through an interpreter, the woman told Pike how she fed her baby only sugar and water because she could not produce milk to breastfeed after the trauma of losing one of her kids to a bomb attack.  

“Then the woman said to me as Marie — and it was caught on camera — she said, ‘I don’t want this, please, I don’t want this just to be words on paper. I want the world to know that a generation is dying here. I want the world to know my story.’ ”  

Pike said that at that moment, she felt what drove Colvin — the journalist’s grave responsibility to bear witness to people’s suffering, no matter the cost.  

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