Monday, February 18, 2019

A Private War – unravelling the private and public contradictions at the heart of war correspondent Marie Colvin

Later this week sees the seventh anniversary of the death of the legendary Sunday Times journalist Marie Colvin, killed when her impromptu media base in Homs, Syria was shelled on 22 February 2012.

Lindsey Hilsum’s terrifyingly honest biography In Extremis: The Life of War Correspondent Marie Colvin kept me awake into the wee small hours over Christmas reading about the seemingly fearless yet troubled journalist. I can’t recommend this book enough.

Photographer Paul Conroy was with Colvin on her final assignment, and had worked with her for many years. He delivered the annual Amnesty Lecture at Belfast Festival in 2014. His appearance, promoting his book Under the Wire, was so popular that it sold out and he somewhat traumatically repeated his talk immediately afterwards to meet demand.

The Marie Colvin from those books is brought to life in the film A Private War, detailing her style of journalism and peeking between the sheets of her private life.

The film picks up in Sri Lanka where Colvin lost the sight in her left eye. It wasn’t an excuse to stop travelling and reporting. With a near reckless bravery, she ran into situations while others withdrew or stayed away: she was compelled – probably addicted – to war reporting. Caring for vulnerable people caught up in conflict more than the reasons for the conflict, she often highlighting the plight of women and children as a way of connecting western audiences with the horrific situations she encountered, giving voice to the voiceless.

Colvin was a charismatic figure that instilled loyalty (“we have to go” she tells colleagues), was dogged, temperamental, ignored advice, unreliable, was hard to manage, was bad about ‘phoning home’ to the Sunday Times foreign desk and continually challenged by technology (she jinxed laptops and once ran up a five figure satphone bill). She wore the finest underwear in the field, about her only luxury other than cheap cigarettes. She interviewed PLO chairman Yasser Arafat and Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi on multiple occasions, asking tough questions but staying in relationship.

Rosamund Pike brings the central character to life, unravelling the private and public contradictions of a woman who was both wracked with anxiety yet fearless under pressure, an alcoholic yet could be sober when reporting, sensual yet able to work and sleep in primitive conditions. With tousled hair tied back and wearing the trademark eyepatch, Pike’s Colvin is lean and upright.

Jamie Dornan plays photographer Paul Conroy, the main witness to Colvin’s final moments. He captures the somewhat blasé attitude I saw in Conroy when he was in Belfast, and the Scouse accent mostly stays intact.

The Sunday Times foreign editor Sean Ryan is played by Tom Hollander, capturing the tension between wanting his ‘prize pig’ to deploy overseas to bring in the stories and wanting her to stay alive. Though at times, Hollander seems smug and derivative of some of his other high profile roles.

Colvin told stories about the human cost of conflict, “finding truth” while “writing the rough draft of history” and injecting her own feelings and emotions into pieces that could otherwise have been merely factually shocking reports about terrible atrocities. But her writing didn’t acknowledge the panic attacks, sadness at being childless, multiple partners and fear of aging and dying.

As well as being a tribute to Colvin’s unique attitude and style, A Private War reminds audiences about the appalling situations that she reported from, bringing forgotten and continuing horrors back to public attention. She might have liked that, even if the rest of the film might have embarrassed her.

The strength and clarity of her words in live audio interviews with TV broadcasters around the world was likely to have intensified the targeting of her shelter and ultimately cost her her life. While Paul Conroy escaped with injuries, another photographer Rémi Ochlik was also killed in the raid.

Director Matthew Heineman crams a lot in to the 110 minutes to give a good flavour of the character and the conflicts. The quotes from Colvin’s articles and snippets from an interview about her style of reporting give a sense of the character driven to be reckless in order to make a difference.

Each new reporting trip is captioned with the time ‘before Homs’, building up the sense of forbearing. Yet the journey through the tunnel to Homs is rushed and underwhelming – much better described in the books – with effort instead put into the later hair-raising journey by road ‘dodging’ bullets and rockets to reach the media centre. But the ending is strong, rising up from a singular incident to survey the devastation that the city of Homs suffered.

The lights came on far too soon in the Lisburn Omniplex, diminishing the intensity of Annie Lennox’s song that plays over the closing credits and images of some of Colvin’s reportage in the Sunday Times.

A Private War is only showing in a handful of Omniplex Cinemas (including Lisburn and Dundonald).

No comments: