“A Private War,” which premiered locally Friday at the Lagoon Cinema in Minneapolis, is a biopic about Marie Colvin (a stellar Rosamund Pike), the Long Island-born, London-based war correspondent who lost her life during the Syrian siege of Homs in 2012.
As the title attests, inner turmoil accompanied the outer chaos that Colvin chronicled from battlefields in the Balkans, Chechnya, East Timor, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and other war-torn areas. But Colvin hoped to bear witness to a different kind of private war, said Paul Conroy, her photographer on many assignments.
“We both had a view of war that if we’re going to tell the story of war and conflict, we chose to tell it through the eyes of the people who had the least to say anything about it, and that tends to be women and children who don’t have a voice,” Conroy said from London.
Colvin let those people be heard, and Conroy let them be seen in ways that were different from many media accounts.
“We’re so used to seeing smart bombs going down through chimneys, and this [kind of] war has been sanitized,” said Conroy, who is portrayed by Jamie Dornan in the film. “There are journalists who tell the politics well, who cover the military well. We both had the belief that if you’re going to portray war it should be through the eyes of the victims.”
The duo did just that to great acclaim — and amid great danger.
“The combination of her story and my pictures were bigger than two sums,” said Conroy. “It was a real honor to have done that and have the freedom to investigate and push and pull back the layers of the story until we found that we got to the heart of it.”
“A Private War” also pulls back the layers of Colvin’s unraveling life, including bouts with alcohol abuse and PTSD-induced flashbacks and panic attacks that occur in war zones and London alike.
These scenes might make moviegoers question Colvin’s motivation, if not her judgment, in repeatedly risking her life to report on the lives lost to ceaseless, senseless wars. Soldiers, Conroy said, often told Colvin she saw far more fighting than they did. And while the fighting frightened them both, “Marie’s strength was getting over that terror and still continue to want to tell that story.”
Colvin not only had to get over the terror, but also an attack by Tamil Tiger fighters in Sri Lanka that cost her an eye — but not her vision. Wearing a distinctive black eye patch that matched her swashbuckling courage, Colvin was focused on telling the world what was happening in hellish corners despite the danger.
The press “are now targets,” Conroy said, which is “a big change from wars past when you would flash a press card and a flak jacket. In Syria there was a pecking order of those who were to be killed [by the Assad regime] — factually, it was doctors, journalists and then fighters.”
Factually indeed. Colvin’s family filed a wrongful-death suit against the Syrian government and nine of the country’s security officials. Among the legal findings was this quote about Colvin from a Syrian security official: “Marie Colvin was a dog and now she’s dead.”
French photographer Remi Ochlik also died during deliberate shelling in Homs. Conroy suffered a “fist-sized hole” in his leg and survived for 10 days until he could get to a hospital. He eventually underwent 23 operations during a six-month hospital stay. Conroy recovered, but “I won’t play for Liverpool again,” he cheekily added.
“There were 28,000 civilians trapped in Homs, and Marie would never have left without telling their story, and so we stayed,” Conroy said. “And in the end, it cost Marie her life. But she died doing what she did best.”
What she, and Conroy, did best was let the world know how innocents suffer in wartime.
“The horror of war is what we tried to bring out,” Conroy said. “Through films, war has almost become a form of entertainment. War on the ground is very, very different. War on the ground is scared people reacting badly to situations. People dying needlessly. The real horror of war is the sheer anarchy of war; everything breaks down, society breaks down.
“It’s very rarely portrayed accurately — nobody behaves how you expect. Some people who you think who will not cope, shine. Some people who you think are strong, crumble. And nobody knows until you are in the middle of it how people are going to react.”
Like Colvin, Conroy believes it’s important — imperative, even — to chronicle the “sheer waste and carnage and chaos of war.” Ideally it would spur outrage, and then action. But Conroy acknowledged that, “Sometimes you feel like you’re banging your head against the wall when you don’t see results, but that’s no reason not to keep doing it.”
“If people didn’t do it,” Conroy concluded, “the world would be a far darker place.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.