“War is cruelty,” William Tecumseh Sherman once said. “There is no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.” Sherman’s cold, 19th Century logic dictated that if women and children helped fuel the machine of war, then they should not be exempt from being trampled by it. A Private War depicts a modern, savage world where that ruthless arithmetic has been twisted and perverted into a grim, new reality: Warfare has evolved to make civilians its primary source of casualties. Cruelty doesn’t end conflict; it only begets more cruelty. From Sherman’s pillaging of the Georgia countryside to the Dresden carpet-bombing, we have now arrived at a time of house-to-house extermination.
A Private War centers on the real life of Marie Colvin (Rosamund Pike), a formidable journalist who spends her career navigating blood-soaked villages and tip-toeing across shell-pocked fields. Her fierce crusade is to document the hollow, haggard faces of the innocent. This quest yields a collection of deep scars, both seen and unseen: An attack by Tamil revolutionaries costs her an eye; the atrocities she’s seen committed against children result in quaking, screaming nightmares. Colvin numbs the agony with generous helpings of vodka and agitated drags on a seemingly endless supply of cigarettes. She brings along Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan), a loyal, level-headed photographer, who bears witness to her singular drive to draw closer to the white heat of Truth.
Like its protagonist, A Private War is lean and relentless. It scarcely slows down to breathe, bouncing from one war-torn locale to the next. As Colvin, Pike’s phenomenal performance is built on hairpin turns: In public, she is flippant, often making jokes about the loss of her eye. Left alone in a room, she weeps and wails and crawls on the floor. Much like the subjects of her articles, Colvin spends much of her time suffering in silence. She meets a charming businessman (Stanley Tucci, underused), whose work-hard, play-hard mentality turns on a flickering light in her life. Mostly though, Colvin is only happy living at a dead sprint.
A Private War is searing and sad–a must-see film about a woman who gave words to the voiceless. It’s a fascinating story about a difficult, taciturn subject. Journalism wasn’t a job for Marie Colvin, it was an obsession, to the detriment of everything else in her life. She breathlessly reported from the frayed edges of civilization, and this adrenaline-soaked pursuit yielded a new perspective on the wholesale slaughter of modern warfare: It cannot be ended with escalation. A deeper darkness won’t give us the dawn. Only honesty and compassion can do that.