Journalist Marie Colvin was killed in what can best be called the line of duty in Syria in 2012, minutes after informing the world that the Syrian government, contrary to its claims, was killing its own people, and not terrorists.
A Private War, the story of Colvin's career and her calling, starts on the eve of her death, then backtracks, presenting a collage assembled from pieces of her adult life, designed to give us a vivid notion her hectic, peripatetic existence – traveling to Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, seeking and finding the most untenable pockets within the world's most dangerous places.
As we see, Colvin (Rosamund Pike) is embedded in Sri Lanka when she's wounded, causing her to lose an eye — she hence wore an eye patch that served as a kind of calling card, announcing where she'd been and where she was willing to go. The injury is a serious handicap for a Colvin, who needed to move in physical space like an athlete, but it in no way diminished her desire to continue her job.
Desire, or compulsion? The film wonders. Pike smokes a cigarette in just about every scene, which we take as a symbol of a fatal addiction (tobacco is the only commodity exists in places where there is no food or water). The danger and its consequences are clear — Colvin is a regular eyewitness to grisly death, and lives with intrusive memory of those horrors. Director Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land) mingles these flashbacks with his chopped up — but never incoherent — narrative.
Colvin is ultimately treated for PTSD when her former soldier photographer (Jamie Dornan) diagnoses the condition, and encourages her to seek help. It's treatment happily paid for by her employer, the Times of London. There, concerned colleagues discourage her from returning to war zones, even as they realize she is not to be persuaded.
Pike captures Colvin's complexity – she takes deadly risks but does not have a death wish, she tells story not because it is noble but because it is necessary. And she perseveres because she's better and braver than the average reporter, and so she gets things that others don't.
Pike plays Colvin as selfless, but also a woman who would have pitched a drink in your face for calling her that. The movie takes Colvin's cue. At no point is her personal drama bigger than the suffering of the people on whom she is reporting, and the concluding events in Syria are particularly well-handled and tactful.
Yet we are also watching a portrait of a person, and it is here that the feels weaker. Important relations with husbands and lovers (Greg Wise, Stanley Tucci) and friends (Nikki Amuka-Bird) don't stay on screen long enough to have any emotional substance (it's telling that a scene of Colvin interviewing Muammar Gaddafi, lasting just a minute, registers as the movie's most intimate). Also there are perhaps too few moments when we get glimpses of the mordant humor and bone deep toughness that made Colvin such a dynamic figure to those who knew her, fell for her, worked with her, respected her.
Still, Heineman chooses to end the movie in a way that reflects Colvin's priorities — among victims of war who are abandoned, but thanks to her work, not ignored.