In 2015 filmmaker Matthew Heineman dropped a feature documentary into cinemas titled Cartel Land. It was absolutely one of the most hard-hitting and superbly constructed documentaries I’ve ever seen. The film earned Heineman an Academy Award nomination and paved the way for his first dramatic film; the movie, A Private War, another wonderfully crafted film revolving around the true story of American journalist, Marie Colvin, here played by Rosamund Pike in a career-best role.
Based upon the Vanity Fair Magazine by Marie Brenner, A Private War begins by revealing the devastated city of Homs in western Syria. The film tracks back a decade to 2001, Colvin already well-regarded in her field, and her position at The Sunday Times foreign news desk. She’s onto a story – an assignment trekking with the Tami Tigers where she is suddenly hit by an RPG after an ambush by the Sri Lankan Army. Colvin is blinded in the left eye though returns to London where she is awarded the Foreign Reporter of the Year at the British Press Awards. Although she is suffering from chronic PTSD from the attack, she returns to the field, eventually meeting and developing a close working friendship with photographer Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan), and the two eventually teams to cover the unfolding Syrian civil war, a conflict that Colvin would go on to describe the worst conflict she’d ever seen.
A Private War, though skillfully crafted, is a tough watch throughout. It is Pike’s absolutely flawless performance that makes the film, though the actor, who has been actually nominated the Academy Award previously for her work in Gone Girl, was surprisingly ignored for her turn here. Jamie Dornan, too, is excellent – even with the Liverpudlian accent. There’s even a wonderful turn from Tom Hollander as Colvin’s Sunday Times boss Sean Ryan.
While Heineman doesn’t reach the dizzying heights of the aforementioned Cartel Land and the skillful work he brought to the screen with City Of Ghosts that followed in 2017, A Private War is more than a solid dramatic debut. He surrounds himself with some of the cream of the crop of filmmaking talent; Robert Richardson (Kill Bill, the upcoming Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood) as cinematographer, Nick Fenton (American Animals, Life) as editor, and H. Scott Salinas as his composer, his collaborator on most of his previous projects, including Cartel Land.
While covering on the devastation of war, Heineman’s film, as the title suggests, also focuses on the effects on the people involved that follow. It’s a truly devastating story, handled delicately without glorification or gloss. One of the highlights of the year.
There are three main bonus materials, the first of which is a mini-featurette ‘Becoming Marie Colvin’, which features interviews with the key cast, Heineman and the real Paul Conroy – this runs at about four minutes but provides good insight into the making of the film. There’s also ‘Requiem For A Private War’ which predominantly features an interview with Annie Lennox, who provides a song on the soundtrack of the movie (it plays over the end credits). Again, this is a relatively short feature, only running at under two minutes. The biggest asset on the release is the Sunday Times Q+A with the cast which, again, has Pike, Dornan, Heineman, and Paul Conroy during an on-stage Q+A, recorded when the film had its theatrical release. While insightful, one might have hoped for more.
A Private War is out now on digital, Blu-ray and DVD.