This isn’t to say that Pike hasn’t had her share of lead roles: She has delivered adept, alert performances in such high-profile projects as David Fincher’s “Gone Girl,” as well as in smaller roles — in “A United Kingdom,” “Hostiles” and “Beirut,” for example. But “A Private War” is in another league altogether. As the real-life war correspondent Marie Colvin, Pike erases every trace of her delicate natural beauty to deliver the toughest, most uncompromising and vanity-free performance of her career. Finally, one of our finest actresses has been given material that calls on her to utterly transform herself — vocally, physically, seemingly existentially — and prove how gifted she’s been all along.
“A Private War” begins in 2012, in the rubble of a building that has just been bombed by Syrian forces in the embattled city of Homs. This is where Colvin would meet her death, but the film quickly backtracks to earlier in her career, during which her fearless, swashbuckling temperament draws her to the world’s most scorching hot spots. We see her lose an eye covering the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, after which she affects an appropriately piratical eye patch. Meanwhile, she’s feted by her fellow journalists and living the high life in London, where she writes for the Sunday Times. She chain-smokes, drinks far too much and embarks on a series of ill-fated love affairs, including one with her own ex-husband.
At one point during “A Private War,” Colvin invokes the World War II correspondent Martha Gellhorn, whose courage and integrity she clearly wants to emulate. But the strength of the movie — which is based on a Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner — is that it doesn’t uncritically accept the comparison. Colvin is propelled by compassion and humanist concern, clearly; unlike her colleagues who focus solely on strategy and statistics, she seeks to make “suffering part of the record,” as she puts it. But she’s also driven by straight-up compulsion and an addictive personality at constant odds with her personal and professional judgment.
Directed by Matthew Heineman — best known for the urgent, timely documentaries “Cartel Land” and “City of Ghosts” — “A Private War” is gratifyingly unfussy. Like its subject, it gets to the point, toggling between Colvin’s stints in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan with her well-heeled life in England. Eschewing fancy camera moves or other attention-getting devices, Heineman handles the transitions gracefully, punctuating the action with shard-like montages of flashbacks and anxiety attacks that eventually send Colvin to rehab for post-traumatic stress.
It’s during this passage that Pike delivers the most bravura moment of “A Private War,” when she confesses her doubts and contradictions to her trusted photographer Paul Conroy, played in a gallantly self-effacing performance by Jamie Dornan. It’s a quiet, unforced moment — in which Colvin’s self-mythologizing bravado momentarily gives way to genuine doubt — all the more powerful for being so simple and unadorned.
“A Private War” suffers from one or two cliches: Colvin actually delivers a solemn reminder that journalism is “the rough draft of history,” and a scene of one of her breakdowns, when she wanders desperately through her apartment and drinks vodka straight from the bottle, has the unconvincing air of an improv exercise. Such brief missteps aside, “A Private War” gains credibility and assurance as it plays, largely thanks to Pike’s thoroughly inhabited portrayal, which includes an angular, lanky comportment, a stiff, loping gait and a spot-on Long Island drawl that melds easily with the tapes of Colvin’s real-life interviews that open and close the film.
At a time when the press is regularly labeled the “enemy of the people,” Heineman and screenwriter Arash Amel remind the audience not just of the humanism that drives so many reporters, but also the extreme danger they put themselves in to bring us the truth. Like “First Man” before it, this is a movie that examines its heroes not with a tone of vicarious swagger or abject worship, but one that emphasizes pain, sacrifice and often fatal stakes.
To its credit, “A Private War” doesn’t shy away from the more disturbing questions raised by Colvin’s attraction to risk. As she seeks to banish her demons by engaging in increasingly reckless behavior, it’s clear that she wasn’t just endangering herself, but the colleagues she hectored to go along with her. By the time “A Private War” circles back to Homs, the film has made a strong case for the enormity of the loss of Colvin and Remi Ochlik, the French photographer who died with her. If viewers find themselves grieving and also questioning Colvin’s judgment in that episode, it’s because they’ve been given space to do so by a movie as tough and honest as its complicated protagonist.
R. At area theaters. Contains disturbing violent images, crude language throughout, brief sexuality and nudity. 106 minutes.