The film was inspired by a Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner and cover the last decade of her life
Matthew Heineman’s new biopic on Marie Colvin is ‘an homage to journalism’
These are dangerous times for journalists. Around the world, the pursuit of truth is under attack. While bad and inconvenient news is smeared as fake news, the spread of anti-media rhetoric is creating a toxic environment in which investigative reporters are vilified, threatened, and, in some extreme cases, murdered.
Journalists in war zones were always at risk, but a fairly new trend has seen them picked out for slaughter. In 2012, Marie Colvin, the legendary, eye-patch-wearing (the result of a grenade blast in Sri Lanka) Sunday Times correspondent, was deliberately killed by the Syrian Army while covering the siege of Baba Amr, Homs.
There were 28,000 civilians trapped in the city, and Colvin was one of the first reporters to be specifically targeted in the region. She had a chance to leave – and in fact did, for a few days. However, “She was convinced that she could save lives,” says Paul Conroy, her photographer and friend who was critically injured in the rocket strike that killed Colvin. “She genuinely believed that we could make a difference if we get the stories out … That was the point of everything we did … It was about them people that never had a voice.”
Her death made the world “really focus on what was happening in Syria in the first big way,” he says. “And that was always her hope.”
Putting a human face to conflict
Six years later, with the conflict in Syria still ongoing, there is a lot of interest in Colvin. There has been a documentary, Under the Wire, a new book, In Extremis: The Life of War Correspondent Marie Colvin, by the journalist Lindsey Hilsum, and now, A Private War, the deeply psychological biopic from Oscar-nominated documentary-maker Matthew Heineman, starring Rosamund Pike as Colvin and Jamie Dornan as Conroy.
Inspired by a Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner, and covering the last decade of Colvin’s life, the film brings some of the same complexity, empathy and compassion to a narrative feature that Heineman, whose mother is a journalist, brought to his critically acclaimed documentaries, Cartel Land and City of Ghosts. It is an “homage to Marie and an homage to journalism”, he tells me when we talk in London. It is also a meeting of two people – him and Colvin – who desire to make us care.
“That’s what drew me to her,” says Heineman. “Although I never met her, I knew of her. And I empathised enormously with what she stood for, what she tried to do.” She “put a human face to conflict,” he continues, “and it’s what I’ve tried to do in my own work”.
For Cartel Land, Heineman was embedded with armed vigilante groups fighting drug cartels on both sides of the US-Mexico border. For City of Ghosts, he spent time in safe houses with citizen journalists from Raqqa, Syria, who were risking their lives to expose the horrifying reality behind ISIS’s slick online propaganda. The trauma – obvious and internalised – suffered by the men in the latter documentary, in a sense foreshadows the post-traumatic stress disorder tearing Colvin apart in A Private War, as she pinballs between her life in London and war zones in Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria (all of these scenes are recreated in Jordan).
The psychological trauma Colvin endured, and the difficulty she had readjusting to normal life after each assignment, fascinated Heineman, and it became important to him “to climb inside Marie’s mind [in the film] and understand the effects these war zones had on her.” It was personal, too, as he knew from his own – more limited – experience, how “strange” the transition can be.
“I’ve been in safe houses, I’ve been in torture chambers, I’ve been in many uncomfortable situations in my career, so I’ve felt that same rush, that same pull, to cover these stories, but also those sorts of bizarre thoughts and experiences that happen when you come home, and that dichotomy of the two different worlds.”
Colvin had deep friendships and loving relationships, but although she hated going to war, it “was a sanctuary [for her],” says Heineman. “It was a place to escape it all. Escape the complications of life.” Colvin progressively lost perspective, and ultimately transformed into someone who was more at peace in war zones than at home and inside her own head. “Paul, a number of different times, tried to rein her in, but I think she was someone who couldn’t be stopped. Obviously for better and for worse.”
Adding realism to the film
Heineman needed his actors to understand what being in a war zone feels like, and he tried to make the various sites of conflict recreated for the film as authentic as possible. “I wanted to create environments in which they were not just acting but actually emotionally moved,” he explains.
To heighten the sense of realism, he cast people living in Jordan who had arrived there as refugees. Thus when Pike, as Colvin, visits a mass grave in Iraq, the Iraqi women crying as bodies are exhumed “are real Iraqi women, really crying about real trauma,” says Heineman. Likewise, a scene in a basement in Homs features real women from the city, while a man wailing over a dying child in a pivotal scene near the end of the film was most likely thinking of his nephew who had been shot in the head by a sniper while he carried him on his shoulders, during a protest in the city. “So when he is saying, ‘God, why? Why us? Why him?’ that is coming from a deep place of trauma.”
Heineman frankly recalls a conversation with Pike where she questioned the ethics of what they were doing. “She said, ‘Are we exploiting these people? I’m an actress from London, these are real people who are crying. What are we doing?’” He told her that he deals with the same issue every day as a documentary filmmaker, and that they wouldn’t be there if they didn’t want their stories to be told. “They want the world to care,” he insists.
But will it? This is a question that “plagues” him all the time, and something that also troubled Colvin.
“I think she struggled deeply with the idea of, ‘Will my words actually effect change? Will they make people care?’ And I think she struggled with it until the very end.”
Since Colvin died, half a million civilians have been killed in Syria, and Assad has remained in power. If she were alive today, Heineman is convinced she would be in Idlib, “covering the stories of the poor civilians who have been threatened to be annihilated by Assad’s bombs.”
“I think she would be as devastated as I am, and as many people are, that this conflict has continued.”
A Private War is in UAE cinemas from November 1