Earnestness is emblazoned across Matthew Heineman's A Private War, the movie that serves as a distillation and forceful expression of what appears to be his animus as a journalist, now as an artist. It is both a signifier of what drives him and a tribute to Marie Colvin, the remarkable protagonist of this true story, whose journalism changed how the West saw the developing world in the 1990s and 2000s, and thus changed the world entire. Straying inevitably into fishy white saviour territory at times, complete with either the requisite images of suffering women and children with skin tones deeper than pale beige, or just no such images at all, the movie is saved by its emphasis on Colvin's sincere altruism and the astonishing lengths to which she insisted on going to put this altruism to the finest use possible. Saviour is a less apt term than hero, perhaps, and that earnestness with which Heineman presents her story makes a fierce impression, even if it cranks up the cheese factor a tad too often.
As a showcase for technical and artistic mastery, beyond its triumphs and limitations as a political work, A Private War is a marvel. Heineman has previously deployed his innately cinematic eye to flabbergasting use in his documentaries, his knowledge of pace and composition, the power of the cut and the beauty of the image not detracting from the stories he's told but enhancing their impact. If this fictional, rehearsed and choreographed use of those skills lacks the same baffling brilliance, it's no less compelling in making an argument for Heineman as a filmmaker of uncommon talent. Working with three time Oscar-winning DP Robert Richardson, his images here are potent and evocative, and always trained to the most commanding detail in the shot whether visually or narratively - indeed, it seeks to combine these two pursuits, and the effect can be quite affecting. And how Heineman stages action or action-adjacent sequences ought to make him the next hot property for Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking (though I'm not sure, given his output to date, that he'd be a willing participant) - these scenes have a gripping immediacy, whether due to rapid, nerve-racking cutting or to the absence thereof, such as a memorable shot where the camera follows the protagonists through gunfire, hand-held and low to the ground, as in Heineman's docs.
Despite the fact that many of us will be aware of A Private War's conclusion before and during viewing, that gripping quality endures throughout, as Heineman hones in on what stakes are important to his story and discards those that are not. The movie ends in Syria in 2012, a conflict that is depicted here as unspeakably hellish, and that we know now has still yet to end itself; these stakes are still relevant, and still high. He's not alone in this pursuit, however, as A Private War's most persuasive element is front and centre of every scene: Rosamund Pike as Colvin. She imitates her stance, her demeanour, her vocal cadence all admirably, but all only in service of a faithful recreation of who Colvin was integrally, in body and in spirit. It's an indelible portrayal, yet never overly mannered or dramatic. Pike fits in exquisitely among Heineman's naturalistic mise-en-scene in war scenarios, and appropriately awkwardly among London's hoity-toity social scenes, and to think: this is the same Rosamund Pike we saw fencing in Die Another Day, or refined and delicate in Pride & Prejudice. It's a transformation akin to that of another statuesque blonde some years ago: Charlize Theron in Monster, and only barely a notch below that for excellence. When A Private War stumbles, as it does only modestly and infrequently, she's always there to hold it steady. She's the perfect person to lead this tribute to one of the most admirable figures in journalism's history.
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