Growing up with a journalist for a mother and making his name as an Oscar-nominated documentarian — behind the likes of Cartel Land and City of Ghosts — Matthew Heineman makes his narrative feature debut with Aviron Pictures’ A Private War. As an artist with a journalist’s eye for meaningful, real-world stories and a great deal of personal bravery, it’s no wonder Heineman delved into this new filmmaking arena with the story of Marie Colvin, a journalist whose values mirrored his own.
In the film, Rosamund Pike gives an electrifying turn as the fearless war correspondent, who repeatedly arrived at the front lines of global conflicts to shine a light on the facts of war, giving voice to the voiceless. Setting out to cover the Syrian civil war from the city of Homs with renowned war photographer Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan), the reporter finds her most dangerous assignment yet — the one that will cost her life.
While Heineman always has understood the importance of journalism, given his particular background and set of skills, he never could have anticipated how timely A Private War would become, with journalists under attack, in more ways than one. “For me, the film is both an homage to this amazing, courageous, complicated journalist and [a tribute] to journalism and people who are out there fighting for the truth, shedding light on dark corners of the world,” the filmmaker said.
Of course, in telling Colvin’s story, Heineman’s driving goal was an authentic experience, both of her experience in war zones and the demons that followed her home. “We shot all the war zones in Jordan. I basically cast all refugees living in Jordan,” the director explained. “So when Rosamund walks into the shelter in the besieged city of Homs, the women she spoke to were real women, really from Homs, who were telling their real stories and shedding real tears.“
The opportunity to dive deeply and authentically into a character of Colvin’s complexity is the kind of assignment all actors are after, and that was certainly the case for Pike. “Marie was such a charismatic figure,” the actress said. “She was a force of nature that you had to pay attention to. When I started studying her, there was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to give an audience the experience of being with her that I had watching documentary footage of her. There was no way that I wanted to channel the essence of her through me; I wanted to become her.”
Discussing the challenges the late journalist faced in her life, Heineman gave a sense of Colvin’s motivations, and her perspective on the world. “I think the world is so divided, and she didn’t care about the size of the bomb, she didn’t care about the geopolitical context. She cared about the human beings that are caught in these conflicts,” he reflected. “What really pushed her was to find human stories so that people would care.”
It was her pain at the sight of others’ indifference that drove Colvin on to professional greatness for the good of others, and also what troubled her so profoundly in the end. Of the journalist’s work, Pike suggested a duality. “I think she found a level of life-making sense. [But] the stakes are absolute when you’re in a war zone. The stakes are life and death, and then you come back to London and you’re left alone with the thoughts,” she observed. “And in some ways, that’s the more troubling side.”
To Heineman and his stars, this was the private war — the war Colvin experienced, going where others dared not tread and the way in which she paid for doing so.
Written by Arash Amel, the film is based on a 2012 Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner. The drama premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and hit theaters in limited release on November 2.