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Review: A Private War

Score: B+

Director: Matthew Heineman

Cast: Rosamund Pike, Jamie Dornan, Tom Hollander, Stanley Tucci

Running Time: 110 Minutes

Rated: R

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.

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About Kip Mooney

Kip Mooney
Like many film critics born during and after the 1980s, my hero is Roger Ebert. The man was already the best critic in the nation when he won the Pulitzer in 1975, but his indomitable spirit during and after his recent battle with cancer keeps me coming back to read not only his reviews but his insightful commentary on the everyday. But enough about a guy you know a lot about. I knew I was going to be a film critic—some would say a snob—in middle school, when I had to voraciously defend my position that The Royal Tenenbaums was only a million times better than Adam Sandler’s remake of Mr. Deeds. From then on, I would seek out Wes Anderson’s films and avoid Sandler’s like the plague. Still, I like to think of myself as a populist, and I’ll be just as likely to see the next superhero movie as the next Sundance sensation. The thing I most deplore in a movie is laziness. I’d much rather see movies with big ambitions try and fail than movies with no ambitions succeed at simply existing. I’m also a big advocate of fun-bad movies like The Room and most of Nicolas Cage’s work. In the past, I’ve written for The Dallas Morning News and the North Texas Daily, which I edited for a semester. I also contributed to Dallas-based Pegasus News, which in the circle of life, is now part of The Dallas Morning News, where I got my big break in 2007. Eventually, I’d love to write and talk about film full-time, but until that’s a viable career option, I work as an auditor for Wells Fargo. I hope to one day meet my hero, go to the Toronto International Film Festival, and compete on Jeopardy. Until then, I’m excited to share my love of film with you.