Mike at the Movies

A Private War (R)

This may be the most chilling pictorial interpretation of a major conflict in the history of film. Rosamund Pike is astounding in her portrayal of Marie Colvin, who makes the word “intrepid” sound like weak tea. A three-time winner of the British Press Awards “Journalist of the Year,” she made her beat the Middle East. Any place there was a hot spot, she went there. She lost her left eye in Sri Lanka to what observers said was an intentional RPG and, not really a spoiler, she lost her life in Homs, Syria, from another targeted attack, this time on the press building in which she and other journalists were taking cover. This film is about Colvin’s last years, starting in Sri Lanka and continuing through Afghanistan, into Iraq and Lebanon and,  ultimately, Syria. “I fear growing old, but I fear dying young,” she said. “I hate being in a war zone, but I feel I should see it for myself.”

It was the constant search for war zones that make the ending of this film inevitable. She was doomed to die in war or from lung cancer since she smoked constantly. Challenged by her editor, Tom Hollander (Jamie Dornan), for going to war zones constantly, she replied, “I see it so you don’t have to.”

She focused on the human side of the stories, and she is portrayed in the film interviewing a mother who lost her husband and eldest son in the war and watched as another set of parents stood by and saw their young son die in front of them after a bombing. Muammar Ghadaffi tells her, during their challenging second interview: “Of all the women in the world I enjoy being with, I enjoy being withyou the most.”

Not long after the interview she walks with her photographer, Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan), past the bruised body of Ghadaffi as he lies murdered and discarded in a sewer. She suffered, predictably, from PTSD and upon recovering, she starts, in the film, an affair with Tony Shaw (Stanley Tucci), a composite figure made up from various men with whom she was familiar.

Married twice, she died single at the age of 56 after fighting several of her “private wars.” Pike is incredible as Colvin—moving, tough and yet tender at the core, which in a way destroyed her. She had to cover the people injured by war. At one point she plaintively wonders: “I write about it all but I often wonder if it matters.”

It does, yet the world keeps letting itself kill as many people as possible. Marie Colvin tried to stop it all and failed in an effort that she must have known would end in frustration. Instead, it ended in her death.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (R)

Taken from the book of the same name, this is the story of Lee Israel. She was a best-selling biographer of the stars in the ‘80s, but interest in her books fell off and she was living in a hovel with cat feces all over the place and nowhere to go. She stumbled into selling what is called in the book trade an “ALS”—autograph letter signed. While she was at it, she also sold TLS—typewritten letters signed. She went from there to writing what purported to be real letters, mostly typed. She got as much as $1000 for a good example. She was such a good writer that she could say, with some confidence, “I’m a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker.”

She is also an alcoholic. She describes herself as “a 51-year-old woman who likes cats better than people.” Perfect role for comedian Melissa McCarthy, right?

A dressed-down, decrepit character, McCarthy brings it off in style. Her best buddy, Jack Hock (Richard E Grant), is a gay former writer who is also a drunk. As we figure, the FBI begins sniffing around as the letters proliferate and their authenticity is doubted. The FBI eventually publishes her photo and she turns to Jack to sell her letters. He eventually folds, and Israel finds herself in court.

Lee’s personality was her major flaw, and McCarthy captures the prickliness of her character while suggesting the talent buried under a mountain of self-doubt and regret as well as a sea of booze. In her career she forged over 400 documents. She considered them as literature and not a few critics have agreed. McCarthy is mindbending playing against type, and one can only have sympathy for Jack as he descends into AIDS and death. This is beautiful film-making and great acting. See it.