It is probably unwise to watch two films on the same subject back-to-back, particularly when one is a documentary with some reconstructed sections and the other is a feature film where some players actually experienced the events depicted. I watched 'Under the Wire' (2018) – the documentary – first, and soon after, 'A Private War' (2018) – the feature film.
Both films, which came out within weeks of each another, concern the 2012 death under shellfire in Syria of world-famous American foreign correspondent Marie Colvin, who was covering the conflict for the Sunday Times. Both films are timely, her death having been ruled as unlawful killing by a recent US court case.
Photographer Paul Conroy who was with her at the time of her death was critically injured in the same attack and was determined to tell the story that she died trying to report. Chris Martin's documentary 'Under the Wire', made for the BBC Storyville documentary series, is based on Conroy's memoir of their final assignment in the besieged city of Homs. It portrays a strong friendship and working relationship while telling a heart-stopping story. Conroy, a Liverpudlian ex-soldier, is a funny and astute interviewee and commentator. When he talks to camera about the viciousness of Assad's war, over the awful footage that he himself shot, the effect is devastating.
Marie and Paul believed the best way to portray war was to get to the people who suffer the most. 'Under the Wire' includes the powerful story of the 'Widows' Basement', a building housing women and children seeking shelter from the bombing. Colvin's reporting from there became worldwide news and is now credited with saving many lives. The documentary also acknowledges the role of the people on the ground who helped Colvin and Conroy, especially Wa'el, a Syrian translator, who led them through a pipe into Baba Amr, an area of Homs under fierce bombardment. His testimony is very moving.
It is by remaining tightly focused on this final story in Homs that Chris Martin's documentary is so gripping. Much of Paul's footage was lost in the bombing that killed Marie. The consequent search for archive material involved the film team travelling back and forth between Istanbul, Amman and Beirut, tracking down survivors from Homs, and wading through miles of digital footage to tease out images from a two-week period (when Marie was there) during a six-year war. The result is a truly remarkable documentary that remains true to the raw style of found footage and yet keeps the viewer totally immersed in Homs with Marie and Paul. Its re-enactments of war, filmed in Morocco, are seamlessly woven into the real footage.
Conroy is also listed in the credits as a 'consultant' at the end of 'A Private War', a Hollywood biopic starring Rosamund Pike as the veteran war reporter. It arrives in cinemas eight years after Colvin's death, and just weeks after a US court found this to be no accident, but an illegal killing by the Assad regime. Directed by American documentary filmmaker Matthew Heineman, making his fiction debut here, 'A Private War' is based on a Vanity Fair profile by Marie Brenner and was adapted by screenwriter Arash Amel who wrote and co-produced the critically slated Grace Kelly biopic, 'Grace of Monaco' (2014).
The combination of Heineman's naturalistic style with Amel's overwrought dialogue is not a felicitous one. 'What do you hear when the music stops?', uttered by Colvin's worried friend at a party, isn't just something no one would say at a party. It is not something anyone would say, full stop, far less someone tentatively broaching the question of alcoholism, even PTSD, with her best friend.
'A Private War' foreshadows its end at its beginning, with overhead shots of a devastated 2012 Homs and a voiceover of Marie Colvin being interviewed about her work. Our realisation that the real Colvin is speaking is delayed by the uncanny way that Pike perfectly replicates her Long Island accent – a vocal impression matched by her weary posture and looping gait. Our first glimpse of Pike's Marie on the frontline finds her reporting on Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers in 2001 where she is caught in crossfire and loses an eye (she will wear her hallmark eye patch with pride from now on). Next she is in Iraq, grabbing a photographer she has just met – Jamie Dornan's Paul Conroy – and dragging him with her to Fallujah to find the mass graves she has heard of, using her gym card to bluff her way past a military checkpoint.
The film is structured around a countdown to Homs and to Colvin's death, as marked out in the Vanity Fair piece. Arash Amel's screenplay takes us through key events in the last decade of the correspondent's life, each chapter marked onscreen by how long until the shelling in Homs will kill her, like a ticking clock. This ticking clock structure paradoxically creates an enervating lack of momentum as the film edges inexorably towards the fatal hour. This sense is reinforced by the constant shifting back and forth between Colvin's frontline assignments, and interludes in London where she attends parties, has nightmares, and engages in clunky dialogue scenes.
'A Private War' is best at showing Marie on the frontline. The recreated war sequences in Sri Lanka, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria have a shocking immediacy as captured by cinematographer Robert Richardson's hand-held camera. This is where Heineman's experience making documentaries such as 'Cartel Land', about the narcotics war in Mexico, and 'City of Ghosts', about a citizen journalist group in Raqqa, pays off. The further we move from the battlefields, the more undistinguished the storytelling.
The unvarying two-dimensional format also produces some confusing drama, with one messy montage mixing scenes of a warzone one-night stand, with woozy images of home, repeated flashbacks that place a dead girl with a gaping wound on Colvin's bed, and shots of Marie at her laptop.
In place of the multi-layered, textured, enquiring perspective that we have come to expect from worthwhile biopics such as Kapadia's film about Amy Winehouse, 'Amy', there is a uniformity of tone and failure to interrogate that offers no fresh insights. At one point, Marie's editor Sean Ryan, played by a miscast Tom Hollander, wails: 'If you lose your conviction, then what hope do the rest of us have?'. Just try saying this sentence at the same time as imagining any half self-aware editor of a quality newspaper uttering it.
Characters are used to tell us facts about Marie in a repetitive rather than revelatory manner: 'You've seen more war than most soldiers', her photographer spells out, redundantly. Meanwhile, Stanley Tucci as a love interest, is whiney: After Marie loses her left eye in the Sri Lankan mortar attack, he actually speaks the words: 'And you used to be so beautiful'.
As for the many Arabs and Tamils peppering the film, in contrast with Colvin's own vivid writing, which places their individual stories centre-stage, here they appear mainly as background wallpaper. Apart from her Iraqi escort Mourad, none of the people she wrote about have names.
The film's laboured script verges on presenting Colvin as a martyr rather than a passionate news journalist competing with others for scoops. One line in the biopic is particularly risible in coming close to pathologising her remarkable life: 'Maybe I would have liked a more normal life. Maybe I just don’t know how'. Yet by the accounts of her friends (some who appear in 'Under the Wire') she was living exactly the life she had chosen for herself. Much too is made of her childlessness, portraying her as yearning to 'be a mum like my sister'. She did try to conceive with the husband she married twice, but though she clearly loved children, she knew she led a life that made it difficult to have them herself.
The documentary focuses on Colvin's work, while the biopic, more interested in understanding what made Colvin tick, falls into the trap of summarising its subject and her motivations, thereby missing the point entirely. The reasons Colvin took such risks to expose and combat the horrors she came across in her work are brought to life in 'Under the Wire' with tremendous force. So too is her personality. The documentary feels relentless because it covers such a short period of terror, but there are glimpses of Marie's charm and wit that leaven the unremitting terror.
As Chris Martin's film reveals, she was charismatic and funny as well as beautiful and acerbic; she found purpose in her work and took pride in her success and reputation. Her bosses knew that Marie's risk-taking yielded the best stories, says friend and fellow correspondent, Lindsay Hilsum: Courage made her vulnerable 'not just because such reporting put her in danger, but because she and her editors let it define her'.
One of the most powerful scenes in both films, set in the basement in Homs, shows a frantic doctor and helpers working long hours with the most basic equipment, trying to save the lives of several people, including babies. In Heineman's biopic, one man is beside himself with grief. I read later that he was a refugee whose own child had died in similar circumstances. In Chris Martin's documentary, a nurse, about to help the doctor who is trying to save a mortally wounded baby, realises the child is her grandchild and becomes frantic. It is one of the saddest, most harrowing scenes I have ever witnessed.
For its concise reporting as well as its credible re-creations and above all, its focus on Colvin's work, 'Under the Wire' is by far the more necessary film.
'Under the Wire' is available now on BBC iPlayer. 'A Private War' is in cinemas