Matthew Heinemann’s ‘A Private War’ – A John H. Foote Review

There are times an actor can elevate a film with their performance, which could be so magnificent you forgive the aspects of the film that are clearly weak. Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep come to mind in the bleak ‘Ironweed’ (1987), Morgan Freeman as the dangerous pimp in ‘Street Smart’ (1987), and Liza Minnelli in ‘New York, New York’ (1978) each so extraordinary they take the film to a whole new level of film art. Remember Amy Adams as Giselle in ‘Enchanted’ (2007)? She single handedly lifted that film from something rather average to something very special with her exceptional work as a cartoon made flesh.

Rosamund Pike, as Marie Colvin does that here.

Marie Colvin was a journalist, foreign correspondent, who covered war and human injustices in some of the worst conflicts on the planet. Knowing the danger, she plunged into life threatening situations because that was the best, the only way to report with honest what she was seeing. Afghanistan, Chechnya, Iraq, Libya, to Syria, she was in some of the most intensely dangerous places on the planet, watching as civilians were shelled and massacred, bringing their stories to the world. Fiercely dedicated to the rights of those who could not fight for their own, she advocated for them, calling out governments when they lied or did nothing. In fact, many governments targeted her after some of her writing. Fearlessly, she spoke out for those who could not. She believed it her job as a journalist to “bear witness and report” which she did with both fury and honesty, but also a sense of shame for helplessly witnessing man’s inhuman acts upon each other.

Rosamund Pike is a revelation as Colvin, throwing herself into the role with absolute abandon. Equally comfortable in filthy clothing in a war zone as bombs blew up around her as she was in an evening gown accepting an award, Pike vividly brings Colman to life, nailing her rough voice, but more, finding the deep, ferocious compassion of Colvin, who thought of the victims of war before her own safety. She lost an eye in 2002 and while many thought that injury would lock her to a desk, she slipped on a black eye patch, and despite suffering from PTSD she was back in the field very quickly. Prone to panic attacks, she was almost always smoking, guzzling vodka, wearing designer undergarments so that if her corpse was discovered, they would say she dressed well. Colvin was a remarkable human being.

The actress, remarkable in ‘Barney’s Version’ (2010), terrifying in ‘Gone Girl’ (2014) and resilient in last years ‘Hostiles’ (2017) is superb as Colvin, leaping into the Best Actress race. She captures the intelligence of this fierce, immensely brave woman who understood words were her greatest weapon, and she wielded them with great confidence. Without sounding crass, and that is the last thing I wish to do, watch her eye, blazing with rage at the suffering she sees all around her. Understand, this is a major piece of acting from an immensely gifted actress. A last minute replacement for another film at TIFF, I saw the film there and was profoundly moved by Pike as Colvin.

Where the film suffers is, strangely the direction. Matthew Heinemann is best known as the maker of documentaries, this being his first narrative film, the scenes have an authenticity and profound urgency. His storytelling however needs building upon, because beyond Pike, actor Stanley Tucci as her lover and the cinematography of the great Robert Richardson, little else stands out. In the hands of a great director, Scorsese, Spielberg, Chazelle, this might be a masterpiece.

Instead we are treated to a masterful performance, I hope finds its way into the Oscar race.

The Cinemawala Rating: 3/5

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