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'A Private War' Celebrates The Courage Of Journalist Marie Colvin


At a time when journalism and the free press has been under pressure here and around the world, a movie opening this month celebrates a courageous witness of war and suffering. The film is called "A Private War," and it chronicles Marie Colvin, an American journalist who worked for Britain's Sunday Times. Colvin covered war zones even after losing an eye in the civil war in Sri Lanka. In 2012, she was killed while covering the war in Syria. The movie begins with Colvin's own voice articulating how she wanted to be remembered.


MARIE COLVIN: (As herself) It's like writing your own obituary. I suppose, to look back at it and say, you know, I cared enough to go to these places and write in some way something that would make someone else care as much about it as I did at the time, part of it is you're never going to get to where you're going if you acknowledge fear. I think fear comes later when you've - when it's all over.

MARTIN: NPR's Deborah Amos covers Syria, and she knew Marie Colvin.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: In "A Private War," we see Marie Colvin dodging bullets and bombs. She's a pro, a veteran battlefield reporter.


ROSAMUND PIKE: (As Marie Colvin) Come on. Let's go.

JAMIE DORNAN: (As Paul Conroy) No. Wait.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, foreign language spoken).


AMOS: British actress Rosamund Pike is a convincing Colvin. She is steely, stubborn. She's fearless. She pushed the boundaries of personal safety to document the victims of war, winning honors and fame for her courage. In private, Colvin was a wreck, clear to those of us who knew her. She was haunted by debilitating nightmares and battlefield flashbacks. She chain-smoked. She drank too much, woke up screaming at night. Pike pulls that off, too.


PIKE: (As Marie Colvin) I'm most happy with a vodka martini in my hand, but I can't stand the fact that the chatter in my head won't go quiet until there's a quart of vodka inside me.

AMOS: Yet she kept going back to the front lines. This is the Colvin we first meet in the opening of "A Private War" a decade before her last assignment.

MATTHEW HEINEMAN: On one level, I want people to have a greater appreciation for what it takes to be a journalist, what it takes to be a war correspondent.

AMOS: Director Matthew Heineman is a journalist himself, a documentary filmmaker. In his first narrative film, he brings his audience into the field. It's hard. It's dangerous work covering conflict. Colvin did it again and again until it killed her.

HEINEMAN: In a world where, you know, journalists are under attack and, you know, we live in this world of fake news, I think it's so, so important to celebrate people like Marie who are out there fighting for the truth and shedding light on dark corners of the world.

AMOS: The film also explores personal darkness. There's a price for witnessing so much. Here, Rosamund Pike plays Colvin reporting in Iraq in 2003.


PIKE: (As Marie Colvin) I want to know the stories of individual people. I want to tell their stories. Can she tell me about her father?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, foreign language spoken).

AMOS: The scene is a desert near Baghdad. Colvin got a tip about a mass grave. It's in the chaotic weeks following the U.S. invasion and the ousting of the Iraqi dictator. A bulldozer churns the earth, revealing dismembered bodies and bones. Jumpy gunmen threaten to kill her. She escaped with her story. It's a front page scoop.

HEINEMAN: She didn't care about the size of the bomb or the gun that destroyed a village. She cared about the - you know, the human beings whose lives were affected by it. That's what drove her. And I think that's also what haunted her.

AMOS: And ultimately killed her.

HEINEMAN: And ultimately killed her, yeah.

AMOS: The film's title song captures Colvin's drive.


ANNIE LENNOX: (Singing) Bring it on. Bring it on. Bring it on. Bring it on. Bring it on. Bring it on. Nothing will stop me.

AMOS: Written by music legend Annie Lennox, who'd met Colvin a year before her death.

HEINEMAN: I think the tragedy is obviously that she didn't stop. She couldn't stop. Despite all the sirens around her, despite her growing PTSD, despite her increasing alcoholism, you know, she never did stop.

AMOS: Colvin once wrote that she wanted to make suffering part of the record. She rarely talked about her own. The film portrays a journalist close to burnout when she pushed to go to Syria. In her mid-50s, with only the use of one eye, she was smuggled through a storm drain to get to the besieged Syrian city of Homs. She reported on thousands of Syrian civilians, mostly women and children dying in cold basement shelters with no food, water or medicine.

HEINEMAN: You know, I think she was losing some sense of that sort of spider sense that we all have in conflict zones of whether we should go forward or pull back.


PIKE: (As Marie Colvin) I got to go back. There are 28,000 people there.

DORNAN: (As Paul Conroy) No. No. No. No.

PIKE: (As Marie Colvin) We can't...

DORNAN: (As Paul Conroy) Listen to me.

PIKE: (As Marie Colvin) ...Abandon them.

DORNAN: (As Paul Conroy) Hey.

PIKE: (As Marie Colvin) Let me go.

DORNAN: (As Paul Conroy) Hey. Hey. We will freaking die if we go back, OK? We will...

PIKE: (As Marie Colvin) I got to go back.

DORNAN: (As Paul Conroy) ...Freaking die.

AMOS: The film's power is in the questions it cannot answer. Why did Colvin go back? Why did she push so hard? She couldn't know that the Syrian regime, as alleged in a lawsuit, tracked her and targeted her. She did know it was extremely dangerous. I asked Heineman a question Colvin's colleagues asked. Was her last assignment almost suicidal?

HEINEMAN: I don't want to use that word. As she progressed through her career and obviously towards the end, her perception of that, quote, unquote, "red line," was getting blurrier and blurrier.

AMOS: And then he adds this.

HEINEMAN: You know, many of her friends and colleagues always wondered, you know, how she'd deal with, you know, growing old and not being able to do this any longer. As one of her friends wrote to me, she made sure we would never find out.

AMOS: A reporter is never the story. The story is the story. That is journalism 101. Director Matthew Heineman makes sure there would be a role in this film for people Colvin spent her career reporting on. They have names. They have speaking parts. They tell the story in their own words.

HEINEMAN: You know, we shot all the war zones in Jordan, and all the extras in those scenes are refugees from those various countries.

AMOS: And Rosamund Pike reflected on Colvin's legacy at a recent event in New York.


PIKE: We unpacked that phrase bearing witness, which at first I thought, oh, that sounds - I don't know. I'm uneasy with that phrase. And then I sort of felt it for real, a voice for the voiceless.

AMOS: Deborah Amos, NPR News.


LENNOX: (Singing) Underneath the shooting stars, fireworks tearing us apart, tiny sparks and broken parts, oozing, bleeding broken hearts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.