filmReview: A Private War

Director: Matthew Heineman
Starring: Rosamund Pike, Jamie Dornan, Tom Hollander, Stanley Tucci
Duration: 110 minutes

Reviewer: Lindah Kiddey

Photo by Aviron Pictures

What happens when a gifted, committed correspondent becomes addicted to war zones and front-line truth-seeking? This is the reveal in the biopic A Private War, launched in February 2019 and directed by noted documentary maker Mathew Heinemann. It stars Rosamond Pike, minus her English Rose appeal, as journalist Marie Colvin, and Jamie Dornan (50 Shades of Grey, etc.) as her photographer Paul Conroy.  This biopic moves back and forth in time to cover the last ten years of Colvin’s life. Killed in a rocket attack in Homs, Syria, in 2012, almost certainly on President Assad’s say so, she was a fearless, oft-times reckless, award-winning American journalist working for The Sunday Times.

Her character mixes courage in searching out stories direct from the victims; collateral damage from the big war machine; a constant need for self-validation; and fickleness and failure to commit in affairs of the heart.  When the booze and fags didn’t work to blot out the horrors she’d covered, rampant sex took over. This wrecked her personal life and mental health. She was regularly under close fire, exhausted and was hospitalised with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).

To report from war zones is harrowing and dangerous. For Colvin, who seldom followed safety rules, it was the ultimate folly. Coming from a family of journalists who covered the Irish Troubles, Falklands and Afghanistan Wars, none had the stomach to step out and watch this impressive film. It felt voyeuristic to watch ‘one of their own’ going through danger, psychological damage, serious physical and mental scarring, and violent death.

A Private War covers the many high points of Colvin’s journalistic career.  Tall, raunchy, gravel-voiced, hard-drinking and a smoker, Marie was elegant and stylish despite jungle grime and desert dust, with a hot line in designer lingerie under her signature black jacket and jeans. And she hosted a string of lovers. This film draws on her character, a combination of ferocity to cover events direct from the front line with levels of scant regard for her safety, and a nihilistic zeal to be the first and best with the story.

Director Mathew Heinemann combines a heavy dose of psychological thriller with Colvin’s press corps camaraderie, rivalry, loss of meaningful loves, highs and lows, conflict and mental collapse. In one scene, forever audacious and after engineering an ‘exclusive’, she interviews Libya’s leader Gaddafi in his sultan’s tent at the height of his powers.

Colvin lost an eye to grenade shrapnel in the war zones of Sri Lanka. The black eye-patch became a badge of honour and style accessory. Bleak, shockingly realistic, hard-hitting scenes reprise her Syrian war coverage. The camera eye does not flinch to replicate close-ups of what she reported.  Of the bloodied and broken bodies of women, children, babies, men young and old, the wailing of widows, and a young girl dying pitifully before her eyes from blood loss.

Jamie Dornan plays the war photographer Paul Conroy, who worked with Colvin, and is portrayed with some conviction. He questions her motives and scant regard for her, and indeed his, self-preservation, whilst doggedly racing down the same perilous path to get the best shots. Was it really "to make other people care", as she stated, or was it to prove a point to herself?

Always a wild child according to her biographer and friend Lindsey Hilsum, Colvin relaxed through her teens and twenties by sailing alone into the eye of many storms off the east coast of the US where she grew up. Tacking close to the wind was a trait that never left her.

A Private War brings Colvin to the screen admirably. The film is sometimes a little clunky on script and timeframes, but it’s a memorable and lasting tribute to a woman who wanted to walk in the steps of other great women war reporters, Martha Gellhorn and Lee Miller in particular.  If this film is a true record, I reckon she succeeded.


Lindah Kiddey is a retired communications executive who has worked for numerous multi-national organisations, including The Arts Council, as well as for a number of HE institutions. She is also a freelance feature writer, and a life member of The London Press Club.


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