“Let me tell your story”: A Review of A Private War
By Scott Slovic
In a key passage toward the end of director Matthew Heineman’s 2018 biopic about foreign correspondent Marie Colvin, A Private War, the writer is in Misrata, Libya, covering the violent final days of Muammar Gaddafi’s reign in 2011. The film shows Colvin, her photographer, and their guides as they seek to tell the story of widespread abuse of the civilian population in Libya amid the disorder. The journalists race for cover as shells fall nearby, while Colvin’s voiceover states, “I feel that we’ve failed if we don’t face what war does, if we don’t face the human horrors and tell people what happens when all sides try to obscure the truth.” This “truth,” for her, meant particularly the on-the-ground experience of violence and suffering.
Back in the hotel where the journalists are staying, Colvin is on the phone with her editor at London’s Sunday Times when stretchers enter the lobby behind her. We see her reading a text message from her editor: “Reporters targeted. Do not go to the front!” Moments later, the reporters gather in a triage room in the hotel, staring at the bloody body of a journalist who has just died, tears welling in their eyes (in Colvin’s case, a single tear spills from her one good eye, the other covered with a black eye patch, as she had lost sight in the eye from an rocket-propelled-grenade attack in Sri Lanka in 2001). The footage then cuts to the rooftop of the hotel, where Colvin, played by Rosamund Pike, is sitting precariously on the edge, listening to explosions and gunfire in the neighborhood, her legs dangling over the abyss. Her legs and shoeless feet are accentuated visually against the brightness of the street below—we are meant to see her vulnerability. This is a vivid image of searing emotion and personal precarity, driven by a direct encounter with the violence of war, a filmic representation of what it means to take the loss of life to heart.
Heineman’s film foregrounds the personal costs, including daily exposure to conflict-zone risks, that certain communicators of compassion must endure. Admittedly, Colvin’s case is an extreme one. As the film depicts, she spent her professional life covering wars in Sri Lanka, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria, compelled to be on the front lines and to represent the brutal realities of war and its collateral casualties—she also wrote about Chechnya, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, and East Timor. Some viewers have commented that the film dwells too much on Colvin’s personal quirks and demons, her drive to teeter on the brink: incessant smoking and drinking, one-night stands, and a need to be on the front-line wherever in the world that conflict might be.
Although the political nuances of specific armed conflicts and the lives of civilian victims are not explored in detail in this film, it is clear that Colvin saw her work—and that of her fellow journalists—as essential in bringing the stories of suffering people to the attention of her readers. While covering the Syrian civil war, which would ultimately cost Colvin her own life in a 2012 mortar attack in the city of Homs, the writer learns that 28,000 civilians, mostly women and children, have been trapped by the fighting. “Let me tell your story,” she urges a rebel leader, who then guides her through a hail of gunfire as they race behind makeshift barricades to a devastated apartment building, where families are crouched in darkened rooms as the clatter of shelling and gunfire sounds in the street. A mother holding a small child says through an interpreter, “Because of the stress I am unable to produce milk. I have to feed the baby sugar and water.” “I want people to know your story,” Colvin responds. The mother continues: “The night sky lit up because a car exploded next to our building. All the walls collapsed on us due to the explosion. Because of the explosion we fled to the basement but I realized I didn’t have my third daughter.” “Was your daughter under the rubble,” asks the rebel leader in Arabic. “Yes.” The entire conversation, like others represented in the film as Colvin takes notes by hand and her photographer captures the speakers with his camera, conveys a sense of great intimacy and emotion. The journalist is focused entirely on the individual woman telling her story, though she understands that this experience is one of many such stories. The implication is that people who read this individual story in the newspaper will appreciate the broader human cost of the war, defying psychic numbing through the power of singular narrative.
In his February 2012 obituary for Colvin, Roy Greenslade described her approach to reporting as follows: “She was not interested in the politics, strategy or weaponry; only the effects on the people she regarded as innocents. ‘These are the people who have no voice,’ she said. ‘I feel I have a moral responsibility towards them, that it would be cowardly to ignore them. If journalists have a chance to save their lives, they should do so.’” The story of Colvin’s life is that of a person unburdened by pseudoinefficacy: what drove her to do this work was the belief that journalism—storytelling and imagery—can actually save lives.
It is relevant to content of the Arithmetic of Compassion website to note that Colvin traveled with a photographer: Paul Conroy, played in the film by Jamie Dornan. In addition to using her writing to cover the gritty, bloody details of war in narrative form, Colvin complemented her stories with photographs, understanding the power of imagery in evoking public compassion in response to information about mass suffering. Previous AOC blogs, such as “One Picture Broke the Heart of the World” (October 3, 2016) and “The Ebb and Flow of Empathetic Response to Iconic Photographs” (January 12, 2017) have explored the salience of photographic images in the context of humanitarian crises.
The film’s title, A Private War, draws attention to the internal psychological conflicts Marie Colvin seemed to experience, as evidenced by her self-destructive behavior, including the inherent riskiness of her profession. At the same time, the title may gesture toward the idea that war always has a private dimension—the suffering of combatants and civilians, the psychological and physical jeopardy experienced by witnesses (including journalists), and the need for readers and viewers to project themselves into the scenes recreated in newspapers, magazines, films, and other media.
The film begins with a voiceover as the camera pans across a scene of the rubble to which Homs, Syria, has been reduced, a foreshadowing of the final days of Colvin’s life. In response to an interviewer who asks what she would like a young person to know about her life many years in the future, she says, “I suppose to look back at it and say I cared enough to go to these places and write in some way something that would make someone else care as much about it as I did at the time.” A Private War is a powerful depiction what it means to “care enough” to put one’s own life at risk while seeking to evoke public compassion through the medium of journalism.
Greenslade, Roy. “Marie Colvin Obituary: Foreign Correspondent Lauded for Her Courage as She Bore Witness to Wars Across the World.” The Guardian (22 February 2012). https://www.theguardian.com/media/2012/feb/22/marie-colvin
Heineman, Matthew, dir. A Private War. Aviron Pictures, 2018.
Photograph of Marie Colvin by Brian Smith, used under fair use.