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Matthew Heineman's private war against propaganda
Director's feature debut tells the true story of a war journalist who risked - and ultimately lost - her life

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Thursday, November 15, 2018 – Page A14

When he was 21, well before he became a director, Matthew Heineman went to a lecture by the legendary documentarian Albert Maysles (Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens).

"Maysles said, 'If you end up with the story you started with, then you're not listening along the way,' " Heineman recalled in a phone conversation last week.

"That's good advice for filmmaking. And for life. I've held that true to my heart every step of my career: Be open to the story changing. Be open to the happy accidents."

Heineman applied that advice to the documentaries he made: Cartel Land, about drug cartels on the U.S./Mexican border (it was nominated for an Oscar in 2016); and City of Ghosts, about Syrians fighting to save Raqqa from the Islamic State (it was nominated for a 2018 Emmy). As well, the advice came in handy on his new film, his feature directorial debut: A Private War, which tells the true story of Marie Colvin (Rosamund Pike), the American-born, London-based war journalist who risked - and ultimately lost - her life because she believed, as she says in voice-over, "You have to go to places where you could be killed, no matter how afraid you are, to make that suffering part of the record."

Heineman's first day on the Private War set was his first day on a feature set, ever. He had to make a few adjustments. "I never went to film school, I had no formal training," he says. "I have no business doing what I do, I guess. It's all been following my instinct." On his documentaries, he was used to shooting wherever, however, with whomever he wanted. "So I didn't understand why we couldn't shoot 360 degrees on every set and location. Or why people needed to go to the bathroom, or have food to eat." He snickers.

Luckily, his director of photography was a titan: Robert Richardson, the three-time Oscarwinner and cinematographer of, among others, Salvador, Platoon, Shutter Island and Inglourious Basterds. They'd spent months sending each other films and reference imagery, to bring the conflict scenes alive. "Every moment, every frame, every pixel in every frame mattered to me," Heineman says. "I want people to feel like they're in Marie's shoes, inside her head, and on the ground with her. I didn't want this to be a biopic, I wanted it to be a visceral, psychological thriller examining what drove her to go to these places, but also what haunted and plagued her."

That is why, on Day 1, Heineman was nonplussed to see Pike on her cellphone between takes.

He soon realized that she wasn't texting - she was watching videos of Colvin, absorbing her flat New England accent, the way she held tension in her neck, the way she splayed her fingers when she gesticulated. Pike didn't only do that on Day 1; she did it every day for the entirety of the shoot.

Pike had wanted to play Colvin ever since she read the 2012 Vanity Fair article about her, by Marie Brenner, on which the film is based. She's a great character: Ferocious, sexy, smart, determined, reckless, she was a fearless reporter and a vivid writer, addicted to both the truth and the dangers of getting it. After she lost an eye on assignment in Sri Lanka, she made her eye patch her trademark. In the field, she wore La Perla lingerie under her flak jackets; back home in London, she turned her exploits into anecdotes. But privately, she suffered from PTSD and self-medicated with alcohol.

Pike met Heineman at a screening of City of Ghosts, made her pitch at breakfast the next day and followed up with a three-page letter about Colvin. "Ros's deep understanding of who Marie was, even at that early stage, was profound," Heineman says. "I wanted an actor who would get in the trenches with me. She made it clear that not only was she going to do that, she yearned to do that."

Pike digs deep, and Oscar talk is swirling. But Heineman's pursuit of the truth was hard on her. To create an environment in which real drama could occur, he shot as many 360-degree scenes as possible; the camera's roving was documentary-style, and so was the pressure: "We get one shot at this, and if we miss it it's gone." On location in Jordan, he cast as many resettled refugees as possible in key roles. So when Colvin finds a mass grave in Iraq, the women wailing on its edge are real Iraqi women reliving real trauma.

When Colvin interviews Syrians taking refuge in a bombed-out basement, the women are telling their real stories and shedding real tears.

And when she interviews a man whose son has been shot, the actor playing him didn't have to feign grief: His own nephew was shot off his shoulders during a protest, and died in front of him.

"The trauma he brought onto the set was so intense it was almost unbearable," Heineman says.

Pike had "an existential crisis" - she left the set for a few days to process her feelings. "The lines between reality and fiction were so blurry, so unlike anything she'd done, she wasn't sure if she could handle it" - if what they were doing was art or exploitation.

Heineman told her, "I deal with this on a daily basis with my docs.

But your job is to capture those moments, as it was Marie's job.

This man wouldn't be here if he didn't want his story to be told."

This belief in journalists and what they do is precisely why Heineman chose A Private War as his feature debut. "I deeply relate to Colvin's desire to go to conflict zones, to put a human face on these complex geopolitical conflicts," he says. "To try to get people to empathize with something they might otherwise keep at arm's length.

"I also understood her guilt about coming home to safety when others can't leave," he continues. "Through so much of making Cartel Land, every time I left I felt guilty."

And of course, the film could not be timelier. "Journalism in the U.S. and around the world is under attack," Heineman says. "For me, the film is not just an homage to Marie, but to journalism - for the people out there fighting to shed light on dark corners of the world." (That includes his mother, a science journalist.)

He's also disheartened that so many in the United States demonize refugees. "When City of Ghosts premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, many of the film's subjects were there," he says. "But if it had screened a week later, they would have been shut out by Trump's travel ban. These people were literally and in every sense our allies in the fight against ISIS.

To think that they would not be welcome in my country - that people would consider them terrorists, when their friends and family members were executed by ISIS, is absolutely infuriating.

The idea that we should build walls as opposed to bridges is antithetical to my belief about what is right in this world.

"Propaganda is a tool humans have used against humans throughout history - the lack of information, the perversion of information," he concludes. "But truth is a weapon against that. Examining Colvin, this courageous, brilliant, complicated woman, who went out there to sift through the different strands of propaganda, to find the human truths - that's the story I had to tell now."

A Private War opens Friday in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.

Associated Graphic

For her feature role in A Private War, Rosamund Pike would watch videos of war journalist Marie Colvin every day on set to absorb her accent and minute mannerisms.

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