You won’t see a better performance this year than Rosamund Pike’s multilayered turn as Marie Colvin in A Private War, Matthew Heineman’s harrowing film about the life and untimely death of the American war correspondent, famed for her willingness to venture into the world’s most dangerous places, and known for the eye patch she wore to cover up one of the many wounds she suffered in the line of duty.
With a look in her eyes that fluctuates between fierce determination, unbearable sorrow, and inner torment born from the global horrors Colvin witnessed first-hand as a reporter for Britain’s The Sunday Times, Pike brings a bracing complexity and realism to the part. At once noble and flawed, single-minded and unstable, clear-sighted and boozy, her Colvin—who perished during Syria’s Siege of Homs on February 22, 2012, at the age of 56—is both a scarred three-dimensional human being and an exemplar of journalistic courage and integrity.
If it doesn’t earn the 39-year-old actress a second Oscar nomination, they might as well just scrap the awards show altogether. And it helps make A Private War—arriving in theaters Nov. 2 amid the ongoing Jamal Khashoggi saga, Donald Trump’s continued slander of the press as the “enemy of the people,” and pipe bombs being sent to CNN—a particularly relevant portrait of the media under fire.
That fortuitous timing isn’t lost on Pike, who admits that the film (based on Marie Brenner’s Vanity Fair article “Marie Colvin’s Private War”) has, unfortunately, a lot to say about our present-day circumstances. “It has a very upsetting timeliness right now. Which is not great, frankly. We are really seeing journalists under threat,” she tells The Daily Beast. “There was a shift, I think. When Marie started her career, there was a sense that you were protected as a journalist, and it shifted, maybe during the Arab Spring—journalists did become targets. Marie had many, many upsetting experiences. She was shot at, and she was sexually assaulted as well in Cairo. Her determination to get to the front—she paid a hard price for that.”
“In America, the authenticity—or the morals—of journalists are daily being called into question, and your government seems really hostile to journalists in a very disturbing way. I think never has it been more important to put a story out there that really reveals what a journalist does,” she continues. “With the Khashoggi murder, it’s at the forefront of people’s minds—well, we hope! I say that, knowing how people love a bit of immediate outrage—“Oh, isn’t that awful”—and then they forget about it and get back on Instagram. We all want to feel—and people like to feel—that they’re engaged, but are they really engaged? I don’t know. Certainly many people are, but there are so many distractions, and that was always Marie’s fear. Will enough people care? Of course some will. But will enough people care when a story reaches them?”
As A Private War details with expertly-fractured precision, Colvin was a correspondent driven to highlight the human face of warfare, no matter the toll it took on her own increasingly beleaguered psyche, which she medicated with alcohol. In that regard, the film follows in its subject’s footsteps, laying bare the complicated effects of Colvin’s work on her own life. That, to Pike, made it feel all the more urgent. “It felt like a story that mattered. It’s the human story that is the thing that draws me, and then the political dimension comes secondary—for me, not for everyone who sees the film. Like Marie, I’m drawn to the human story, and then you get into politics.”
In Colvin, she found a magnetic collection of messy contradictions. “Here was this person who could live so hard and yet fight so hard for the truth and fight for what she believed in—that commitment, and what that commitment cost her,” Pike says. “I think I was also intrigued that not only did she write about conflict zones and had this deep empathy that took her into the minds of people under siege, and told stories of the true personal cost of war—which was the civilians affected—but she had the ear of the great dictators and leaders. She had intimate access to Arafat, she had several audiences with Gaddafi. That made her a very, very unusual figure.”
Far from simply a one-note beacon of virtue, A Private War depicts Colvin as a distinctly damaged woman, incapable of shaking the nightmares of battles gone by, and yet simultaneously unable to stay away from the most treacherous regions of the world. “I just thought, of course, if you witness that much trauma, you’ll pay for that. And what is the cost of exposing yourself to so much in order to bring other people the truth? Of course that’s going to have a cost on your mental health,” Pike states. “I knew that Matthew Heineman would be fearless in his willingness to investigate that. And I felt that ultimately, that would make her a more human, more vivid, more impressive subject, because I think we’re too suspicious now of someone who seemingly has no flaws, or is just a perfect specimen of humanity.”
In his first dramatic feature after a string of acclaimed documentaries about hot-button geopolitical topics (Cartel Land, City of Ghosts), Heineman marries a jagged editorial structure to vivid up-close-and-personal images of people coping with horrific situations. Co-starring Jamie Dornan as Colvin’s photographer and Stanley Tucci as one of her paramours, A Private War exudes a striking authenticity, be it in a visceral, visually low-angled scene that captures Colvin struggling to write on a laptop late at night, or a late sequence in which Heineman’s camera lingers on the grief-stricken face of a Syrian man who’s just lost his child in a bombing.
As Pike reveals about the latter, it’s a moment whose power comes, in large part, from the fact that it’s only partly fictional. “That man was not an actor. He was a man from Homs who had lived through the Siege of Homs, and is now living in Jordan, which is where we filmed all our war zones,” she explains. “His nephew had been shot by a sniper, and he had seen that child bleed to death. So when he came into our makeshift clinic, carrying a child, something so painful welled up in him, like a howl of the deepest pain, and it was unbearable. We all felt it. The room was charged with so much trauma, and it was so upsetting.”
Pike confesses that, because many background actors were actual Syrians, such scenes invariably raised thorny representational—and emotional—questions. “When you’re occupying a space where real trauma is being relived and felt, that’s also a challenge, but maybe more of an emotional one. What right do you have to be there, even?” she recalls. “At some point, I felt an upswell of emotion that I didn’t know how to process: confusion, anger—asking Matt if it was right that we were capturing such a deeply, uniquely personal moment for these people. He had to keep reassuring me that they wanted to be in the movie; these were people who wanted the story of Syria out there. But that was another challenge that was certainly kind of life-changing.”
Still, she believes those sequences exemplify the ethos embraced by Colvin, because they strive to expose ugly truths that people otherwise wouldn’t know about—or would prefer to ignore. “Although your human instinct is to walk away and give someone privacy [in such an instance], your obligation, if you’re searching for the truth, is to capture those moments,” she says.
That’s also true when it comes to Colvin herself, whom Pike found to be a daunting figure to embody. “During the months of preparation, there were many times when I felt I should give up, or I felt inadequate to the task ahead, and was fearful that I wouldn’t pull it off. But then I think by the time we started filming, and as we went on, I became more and more comfortable in her skin, and in her body. I felt free inside her, I suppose.”
Most important of all was making sure her performance got to the warts-and-all essence of the real-life journalist, who earned the respect and loyalty of not only other professionals in her field, but so many who knew her. In an age in which maligning the press has become an easy way for certain demagogues to squash dissent and criticism, conveying an unvarnished sense of Colvin’s heroism was paramount to Pike.
“I think Marie was loved very fiercely by her family, by her very close friends. She was somebody who people felt very, very strongly about. And her death was abrupt and awful and very hard to process for those who loved her,” she says. “I wanted to do right by them so much. I wanted to put a version of their friend on-screen that was damn close to their friend. I wanted to inhabit her fully for them.”