In ‘‘A Private War,’’ Rosamund Pike plays Marie Colvin, who was killed in Syria in 2012 while reporting on the war. (Aviron Pictures)
The voice has stayed with Rosamund Pike. For the new movie “A Private War,” the British actress transformed her posh, rounded speech into a distinctive American rasp to play Marie Colvin, the Long Island-raised, London-based journalist who was killed in Syria in 2012. On tough occasions, Ms. Pike still imagines using her tone: It suggests a woman who gets things done.
That voice, along with the patch Ms. Colvin wore after she lost an eye to a grenade in Sri Lanka, became her calling cards as she catapulted into war zones around the world, and wrote courageously reported articles for The Sunday Times in London. “A Private War,” now in limited release, aims to realistically portray her struggles and explain why she persisted.
Ms. Colvin’s story is in some ways tailor-made for the big screen: her rise as an international correspondent reporting on conflicts in the Middle East, the Balkans and elsewhere; her bravery going into hostile territory to document the civilian cost of war; and ultimately, her death while covering a relentless battle in Homs. She was undeniably gutsy but suffered post-traumatic stress disorder and other ills from witnessing so much trauma. She was also witty and stylish: a natural cinematic heroine.
Women like Ms. Colvin — and those before her, like the British correspondent Clare Hollingworth, who broke the news of World War II in Europe, and pioneering photojournalists like Gerda Taro and Dickey Chapelle — have been at the front of conflicts for a century or more, delivering rich material, with fascinating personal tales.
Yet “A Private War” is one of only a handful of Hollywood features that put the focus squarely on female war correspondents in the field — perhaps only the third or fourth such film in decades. By contrast, dozens have followed male journalists abroad, said Matthew Ehrlich, author of “Journalism in the Movies.”
In “Bearing Witness,” a 2005 television documentary about female war journalists, Ms. Colvin described the idealism that drove her. War “is what happens to people, and no one wants it,” she said then. “It’s what you try to bear witness to. That makes me think you can sometimes make a difference — attempt to, anyway.”
Playing Ms. Colvin left an emotional mark on Ms. Pike; even discussing the production and what Ms. Colvin witnessed left her queasy, she said. “I had to be her at all times, which meant carrying her in my body and my bones,” she said.
Authenticity was paramount for the director, Matthew Heineman. “The film, for me, is both a homage to Marie and a homage to journalism,” he said.
Marie Colvin traveled to war zones around the world, writing for The Sunday Times in London. (Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)
Mr. Heineman made his name with documentaries like “City of Ghosts” (2017), about citizen journalists fighting ISIS in Syria, and the Oscar-nominated “Cartel Land” (2015), which confronted the Mexican drug trade. He served as cinematographer on those films, shooting in sometimes dangerous conditions. So he had a sense of kinship with the way Ms. Colvin pursued her subject.
“Having felt those same adrenaline rushes,” he said, “that same crazy backwards desire to be in these places, to tell these stories, and simultaneously feeling that bizarreness of coming home,” he felt: “I had to make this film.”
He had a guide in Paul Conroy, Ms. Colvin’s longtime photographer, who was with her when she died and was gravely wounded himself. For “A Private War,” Mr. Conroy, who’s played by Jamie Dornan (“50 Shades of Grey”), was on set daily as an adviser.
In the six years since Ms. Colvin’s death, at least 500,000 people have been killed in Syria. Given the carnage, it’s hard to imagine that one story might have an impact. Ms. Colvin held on to hope that it would: for her final broadcast, on CNN, hours before she was killed, she described the death of a Syrian baby boy.
“I think that she believed, as I believe, that to get people to actually care, you need to tell personal stories,” Mr. Heineman said. “And I think that’s also something that plagued her, and that plagues me, is — do people care, will people care, is it worth it?”