Documentarian Matthew Heineman’s first attempt at a fictionalized feature-length film has potential, but fails to be anything beyond your everyday Awrds-season biopic.
By Ankit Ojha on November 16, 2018

We’ve reached the last quarter of 2018, and you know what that means: films specifically designed to work with film festivals and the Awards season next year. It’s certainly no surprise that we now have “A Private War” in cinemas. 

Directed by acclaimed documentary filmmaker Matthew Heineman, the film attempts to capture the true-to-life events of American journalist Marie Colvin and her tumultuous relationship with war. Heineman’s first attempt at a feature-length debut follows Marie Brenner’s Vanity Fair article “Marie Colvin’s Private War,” much like the recently-released David Lowery drama “The Old Man and the Gun,” was also a loose adaptation of a newspaper article.

And here’s the problem with “A Private War“: it has potential. Some spectacular set-pieces attempt to explore the landscape of psychological trauma, and with Rosamund Pike (“Gone Girl,” 2014) donning the role of Colvin, the film boasts a decent amount of virtues. But that’s all there is to it—Heineman makes a docudrama that’s just about visceral enough to keep the wheels turning but has nothing poignant to take back home.

A significant chunk of the movie’s burden falls on Pike and her co-actor Jamie Dornan (“The 9th Life of Louis Drax,” 2016), who deliver competent performances that balance re-enactment and restrained emotional heft pretty well. Pike, in particular, has an incredibly demanding role. If you’ve seen her in anything before this, you’ll know it’s not surprising that she’s a surefire winner through and through. Her performance boasts a fantastic blend of subtlety and extraordinary dramatic talent. Dornan feels a lot more in the zone here than we’ve seen in the last three years and has a few terrific emotional shifts within the film that can move you.

A Private War - Rosamund Pike
“I’m Rosamund and my name starts with ARRRRRRRR!” // Rosamund Pike in a still from Matthew Heineman’s A Private War, an Aviron Pictures film.

Predictably, the rest of the cast gets lost in the smoke—Tom Hollander (“Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation,” 2015), in particular, has one incredibly moving scene in the last half of the movie but is spectacularly wasted for the rest of it. He’s a prop, which is a shame because he had a ton of exchanges with Pike that could have been explored from an outsider’s perspective of Colvin’s behavior and breakdowns. 

The same goes for Nikki Amuka-Bird (“The Children Act,” 2017) and Stanley Tucci (“Spotlight,” 2015), both of whom are incredible performers; the latter is frustratingly underused. I’m confident there’s an argument for including other true-to-life characters, but what’s the point when it doesn’t serve the film?

Over the last decade, viewers have been graced with diversely narrated biographical dramas. From “I, Tonya” (2017) to “Jackie” (2016), “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013), and “The Social Network” (2010), among many others, there have been many films that have proven time and again that you don’t need to make it as drab as most of these films end up being. 

A Private War,” on the other hand, ends up with the likes of uneventful biopics like “The Imitation Game” (2014), “Gold” (2016), “Darkest Hour” (2017), and “The Man Who Knew Infinity” (2016)—all of which have been admittedly well received, but achieve nothing more than a simple re-enactment of events with no real purpose served to further the narrative. 

Then again, if that’s what you’re precisely looking for, you’ll end up with a lot more to like. Between the powerhouse performances of Rosamund Pike and Jamie Dornan, set-pieces brilliantly edited by Nick Fenton (“On Chesil Beach,” 2018), and Robert Richardson’s (“Adrift,” 2018) excellent cinematography, there will be enough to keep you moving. However, if you expect some artistic or creative merit out of the narrative, you’re in for a bad deal. 

You could pick up the many books that house Colvin’s accounts on war; you’d likely get more of a sharp kick in the gut out of those than by the movie. We live in a world that relies more on visual storytelling than the written word, but you’d be better off sitting this out. Trust me.