The reporter Marie Colvin was killed in Homs in February 2012. A Private War, Matthew Heineman’s movie based on her life, begins with archival footage of Colvin being asked by an interviewer what she would want a young journalist to know about being a war correspondent. Her answer comes in two parts: first, that you should care enough to write in a way that makes others care; second, some tough-sounding advice on not acknowledging fear until the job is done. The film that follows, starring Rosamund Pike, depicts Colvin’s life as a correspondent for the Sunday Times in a series of heroic scenes: the reporter who has ‘seen more war than most soldiers’ insisting on covering an under-reported conflict; sitting up in a hospital bed, still bloodied and half-blind, to dictate notes from the field; facing down soldiers. It is a glamorous caper full of grasping Arabs and immoral Serbs, explosions, sex and drugs.
A Private War is based on a string of recent accounts of Colvin’s life. The jarring title is taken from a long Vanity Fair article published the summer after her death. Paul Conroy, a Sunday Times photographer who worked with her in Syria, wrote a book called Under the Wire: Marie Colvin’s Final Assignment. A documentary based on it came out last year. Lindsey Hilsum has written a biography with a better, duller title: In Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie Colvin. All of these accounts stress Colvin’s single-mindedness and the ways it could make her self-destructive. They all feature a good deal of fetishised bravery. They all mention her underwear, usually by the brand name. They all try to describe the toll the job took on her personally.
In the feature film, however, the psychological damage of witnessing various horrors is used, like Colvin’s eyepatch, as just another way of lionising the noble sacrifice of the war reporter. PTSD and alcoholism are ultimately brushed aside, as Colvin and her editor are determined to continue the job: ‘There are people dying and nobody knows it is happening.’ We already know how the story will end. A Private War is less a portrait of a complex human life than a cartoon of martyrdom.
Some of Colvin’s field reporting was excellent. Her dispatch from Dili in East Timor on 12 September 1999 is an important account of a massacre, and the story of its creation features in most accounts of her life. But East Timor is a strange setting for a celebration of journalistic triumph. The genocide that began there in 1975 was all but ignored by the press, particularly in the United States, whose government supported and abetted the Indonesian occupation. Colvin’s reports mention none of this history. And none of the accounts which followed her death sufficiently acknowledge the profession’s many corruptions and failures. In A Private War, a cub reporter in Iraq asks Colvin a good question. Watching a British television report, she notes that the anchor refers to US forces as ‘we’ and asks whether the press corps is helping to sell the war. One can only hope that Colvin’s reply – ‘it doesn’t matter … look, this is the rough draft of history’ – is a fiction.
Any good reporter has to begin with the premise that most of what is written in newspapers is inaccurate or shoddy. Without that sense there is little real incentive to work. Colvin probably had it, along with an understanding that the stories she wrote were much more interesting than she was herself. At the very least she would have resisted the tone of self-congratulation found in her obituaries.