Like its protagonist, A Private War is refreshingly unsentimental. It's a biography of a hero who died tragically, but it has absolutely no time for your pity. Which doesn't mean it's not emotional. Indeed, this is one of the most heart-wrenching, brutal films of the year. It will move you, but it never milks its harrowing moments.
Rosamund Pike gives a performance that's so exceptional, it rivals her best work in Gone Girl. It's so remarkable, considering her semi-disastrous debut in Die Another Day, that she's become one of the best actresses working today. As Marie Colvin, she lives life on the edge, with a considerable cost that comes due long before she dies reporting in Syria. A war correspondent with no regard for her own safety, she loses an eye in Sri Lanka but loses a lot more relationships thanks to her drinking and unresolved PTSD.
Director Matthew Heineman, making his feature film debut, uses the boots-on-the-ground approach of his award-winning documentaries to make the scenes in war-torn countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya feel authentic, even more so than a lot of recent war movies. It also doesn't shy away from any of the atrocities that took place during these conflicts: mass killings, rape, and children as collateral damage. This is the feel-bad movie of the year, but also one of the most important.
Jamie Dornan, finally free of the scuzzy Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, is quite good as Marie's photographer, doing everything he can to keep her out of harm's way, but right behind her when she charges ahead into danger. A Private War also features solid supporting work from two of the greatest character actors: Tom Hollander (Pride and Prejudice) as Marie's smarmy editor, and Stanley Tucci as Marie's worldly love interest. The latter isn't quite as defined as he should be, but Tucci never turns in a bad performance. The former is right in his wheelhouse and might be giving the best performance of his career.
Beyond its lack of sentimentality, A Private War distinguishes itself not just in its portrayal of a complicated woman, but by holding true to her personal ethos. During the invasion of Iraq, a fellow journalist asks Marie, "Are we selling a phony war?" Marie's response takes her by surprise: "It doesn't matter. You have to show the human cost of war." Using a quote from Martha Gellhorn, she explains that war is never a bad thing for the governments doing battle. The cost is always paid by the soldiers and civilians caught in between. Focus on their stories, and you'll say what needs to be said.
A Private War takes that to heart, delivering a powerful tribute to Marie Colvin, and the thousands of victims she gave a voice to.