Reporters make for odd movie heroes. They are traditionally untidy and unglamorous. But a journalist who is following a story—whether that journalist be Lois Lane or Bob Woodward—can always do double-duty as a protagonist. Reporters uncover the world’s raw narrative material, then refine that material for an audience. Almost every journalism movie is about how the world comes to be represented—and at what cost.
Spotlight (2015) and The Post (2017) are the most recent big-budget newsroom dramas to turn regular working journalists into screen heroes. Both are coated in a political significance that goes beyond their respective storylines about the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal and the Pentagon Papers. Spotlight was made before Donald Trump’s election to office, but the ethic it celebrates flies directly in the face of the president’s continual, dishonest demeaning of the American press—particularly in evidence this week.
In this sense, these two movies operate in the moral tradition of championing truth in the face of injustice, whose most famous example perhaps is All the President’s Men (1976). Woodward and Bernstein, facing a coverup that implicates the entire administration, have to reckon with the potential costs of reporting it out: What if they’re wrong? A great movie about journalism has to show this private struggle, the human element of the job.
Into this tradition steps A Private War, a new biopic about the life and death of war correspondent Marie Colvin, who was killed in Homs, Syria, in 2012. Based on a Vanity Fair article about her life, the film begins in 2001 with Colvin as a foreign correspondent at the Sunday Times in London. She is a raucous and fun woman at the height of her powers. Unlike the schlubby pencil-pushers of Spotlight, she is glamorous, beautiful, and played by Rosamund Pike. She has already cemented her reputation as a bold journalist who reports from the edge of safety. In 1999, she refused to leave an East Timor camp besieged by Indonesian-backed forces, which helped save the lives of its 1,500 residents, who were evacuated a few days later.
We begin in Sri Lanka, amidst the government’s war against the Tamil Tigers. Colvin strolls through a rural, dirt-floor compound, debating history with a nameless source. Their dialogue sets the tone for the rest of the script to come: It’s a little corny and simplistic, but the point certainly gets across. “There are people dying here and nobody knows it’s happening,” she says, trying to get access to the wounded. Later, Colvin is herself wounded and loses an eye, resulting in her wearing a black eye patch for the rest of her life that would become her signature accoutrement.
But the reality of her injury is brutal. The climax of the movie comes when Colvin writes up a searing account of her semi-blinding. Her face is lit up by the laptop screen. The movie cuts to her having sex with a man she has picked up at a party (later to become her partner). She swigs vodka, types, paces. We cut back to the sex scene, then to her slicing prose, cranked out in the middle of the night. “The knowledge of the fragility of the human body never leaves you,” she writes, “once you have seen how easily flesh can be rent by hot flying bits of metal.”
This is the stuff of hard-boiled professionalism, and there’s no denying how well it’s suited to the big screen. But the bluntness of the script is distracting. In her hospital room, she tells a friend that she fears both growing old and dying young. “I’m most happy with vodka martini in my hand, but I can’t stand the fact that the chatter in my head won’t go quiet until there’s a quart of vodka inside me,” she says. It’s expository dialogue without the character-building to back it up. “I hate being in a war zone,” she continues. “But I also feel compelled ... compelled to see it for myself.”
Maybe Marie Colvin did express herself in this way in real life. But Pike’s performance has something clunky and mechanical about it, a sense that she is trying and failing to inhabit a woman much older and tougher than herself. They look alike: They both have faces made of strong planes, animated by intense, hooded eyes. But Pike, 39, just doesn’t read as a hard-bitten American woman who was 56 when she died.
The movie plays out in alternating sequences. Now she is in London, drinking and refusing to acknowledge her PTSD. Now she is in Fallujah, narrowly escaping roadside execution. Now she’s drinking again. This time it’s another war. Award ceremony, war, drinking, war: We flicker back and forth. Then we’re in Homs, where she dies.
It’s a cruel ending that looms over the whole movie. The biopic has a hard task on its hands, which is to weigh up the ethical balance of her reporting, her motives, and the responsibility which must land on her editor for sending her out to Syria in the first place. Colvin ran back to Homs against the advice of her photographer, Paul Conroy, and after having been told that journalists were being targeted. The story of her final broadcast—in which she gave a firsthand account of the siege of Homs in its darkest moments—is extraordinary, and it’s not surprising that it has made it to Hollywood.
But why was she there at all? What drove Colvin’s near-suicidal compulsion to witness human beings in extremis? She needs to “make that suffering part of the record,” we hear. But there are so many questions that the movie cannot bring itself to address. There’s the fact that Colvin brought translators with her into dangerous situations, because she didn’t speak, for example, fluent Arabic. There’s the question of the humanity of the women wailing by a graveside, which—the movie’s logic goes—only becomes real and legible through the act of a Western journalist’s witnessing.
It’s on this point that A Private War fails to meet the standard that a truly excellent journalism movie must hit. Despite the undeniably extraordinary feats that Colvin achieved in life and on the edge of death, A Private War is a hagiography that reduces a complicated woman down to trauma, booze, and typing. Worse, it doesn’t do much justice to the people she met and spoke with in the field. We see a great deal of her private war, but the film’s account of Colvin as a human being does not properly meld with its account of her actual reporting. A Private War does not, in the end, tell a story about stories—only people.