What drives a war journalist

Rosamund Pike (left) plays the fierce but traumatised American war correspondent Marie Colvin in A Private War (above).
Rosamund Pike (above) plays the fierce but traumatised American war correspondent Marie Colvin in A Private War.PHOTO: REUTERS

A Private War delves into what pushed Marie Colvin to put herself in harm's way to chase her stories

A Private War, a biopic about American war correspondent Marie Colvin, explores her dogged pursuit of the truth in conflict zones, from Syria to Sri Lanka.

But the movie's message about the importance of press freedom could just as easily apply to countries at peace, says star Rosamund Pike. The film opens in Singapore today.

Speaking at a Los Angeles screening of the film in November, the 40-year-old actress is asked about the story's relevance today, especially given attacks on the media by United States President Donald Trump and the recent murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Pike, the Oscar-nominated star of the thriller Gone Girl (2014), says: "When you make a film, you always hope it will be timely, but you can never predict it.

"In releasing this now, we found ourselves at the centre of a crisis for journalists in that, suddenly, they find themselves targets in trying to be purveyors of the truth.

"Everybody is aware of Jamal Khashoggi's murder - not in a war zone, but in a modern building in Istanbul."

She hopes Colvin's story will inspire and encourage reporters, even though it does not shy away from examining the mental toll the job took on her.

An award-winning correspondent for London newspaper The Sunday Times, the late Colvin covered conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Sri Lanka and East Timor. She often put herself in harm's way to get the story and her passionate, incisive reporting focused on how wars affected civilians. She was killed in Syria in 2012.

"It's wonderful for a story about Marie, that we can shine a light on what a journalist really does and what the cost is of getting the story," says Pike, whose performance was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama.

"I hope it will mean a whole lot of people might go out and read about her and maybe discover some of her journalism. Or look up a period of history that might interest you and find out what she wrote about it. And there's a chance journalists will take courage from this (current) state of affairs and realise how important it is to continue to pursue their missions, to get truth from the darkest places on earth."


Rosamund Pike plays the fierce but traumatised American war correspondent Marie Colvin in A Private War (above). PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE

Thanks to Matt, we have chosen to tell a story that's not just about the gungho, thrill-seeking war reporter... but also one exploring the cost of the fierce pursuit of a story on someone's mental health.

ACTRESS ROSAMUND PIKE, on A Private War and documentary film-maker Matthew Heineman

A Private War takes an unconventional approach to its subject in part because it was steered by Matthew Heineman, a documentary film-maker directing his first narrative feature. The 35-year-old is better known for documentaries such as Cartel Land (2015) - his Oscarnominated film about the Mexican drug cartels - and this background shows, says Pike.

"Thanks to Matt, we have chosen to tell a story that's not just about the gungho, thrill-seeking war reporter, which might have been the substance of a film of yore, but also one exploring the cost of the fierce pursuit of a story on someone's mental health - someone who prioritises giving voice to the voiceless over her own health, sanity and well-being."

Heineman approached the story as he would a documentary in some ways, even casting real Syrian refugees in scenes where they tearfully recount their experiences to Pike.

"I really didn't want to make this a biopic. I wanted to make it more of a psychological thriller, to try and understand that psychology of what pushes a person to do this, but also what that does to him," he says.

The film-maker, whose acclaimed documentary City Of Ghosts (2017) is about citizen journalists taking on the terrorist group ISIS, identifies personally with this mentality.

"I've been in conflict zones and shootouts and torture chambers, so I've felt that same draw to want to cover these stories. But there's also that bizarre thing of having the privilege to come home the next day and go to a party in New York City and what that does to you to have those thoughts stay with you."

But you do not need to go to war zones to relate to Colvin's desire to lose herself in her work, Pike says.

"A lot of actors share the feeling that to delve into a character - to dive into an intense meditation on someone else's life - is an escape from yourself, which is a happy relief.

"I think Marie felt something similar in the deep empathy she had with civilians the world over. She felt a kind of break from her own life because her home life was chaotic.

"And there's something to be said for when the stakes are clear and life is reduced to simplicity in a war zone: Your mission is clear and you feel like you're doing something worthwhile."

• A Private War is showing in cinemas.

• Watch the movie trailer bit.ly/2CVCMVl

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 31, 2019, with the headline 'What drives a war journalist'. Print Edition | Subscribe