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The True Story Behind the Movie A Private War

8 minute read

Behind every world conflict are individual stories of human suffering and dignity. For legendary Sunday Times foreign correspondent Marie Colvin, few places were too dangerous to search those stories out. Over her decades-long career, Colvin reported from some of the hottest conflict zones in the world, from Chechnya to Zimbabwe. She lost an eye reporting on the civil war in Sri Lanka, and in East Timor was credited with saving the lives of 1,500 women and children surrounded by Indonesian-backed forces. She produced some of her most remarkable coverage during the uprisings of the Arab Spring, reporting from Tunisia, Egypt and Libya in the midst of the 2011 revolutions. Ultimately, the career to which she dedicated her life led to its tragic end: In 2012, Colvin was reporting from inside the besieged rebel-held city of Homs, Syria, when she was killed by regime shelling.

The new film A Private War, directed by Matthew Heineman and starring Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) as Colvin, depicts some of the most pivotal reporting assignments of her career and the personal toll they took. Partially based on Marie Brenner’s 2012 Vanity Fair profile “Marie Colvin’s Private War,” the film is Heineman’s narrative feature debut following award-winning documentaries including Cartel Land (2015) and City of Ghosts (2017). The movie, which opened in limited theaters Nov. 2 and expands nationwide Nov. 16, stays largely true to Colvin’s life, taking occasional liberties for narrative purposes.

Here’s what’s fact and what’s fiction in A Private War.

Fact: Colvin lost an eye reporting in Sri Lanka.

Near the beginning of A Private War, Colvin, already a veteran foreign correspondent for the Sunday Times, makes her way to a war-torn region of Sri Lanka to interview the elusive leader of the Tamil Tigers, a rebel group locked in a deadly, long-running civil war with government forces. Leaving under the cover of darkness, she and her escorts come under fire from Sri Lankan troops. In the film, Colvin identifies herself as a foreign journalist just before an explosion knocks her to the ground, badly wounding her and ultimately costing her an eye. The episode played out similarly in real life. “I was uninjured until I yelled ‘journalist’ and then they fired the grenade,” Colvin told the author Denise Leith in an interview for Leith’s 2004 book, Bearing Witness. “The nightmare for me is always that decision about yelling. My brain leaves out the pain.” Colvin was later flown to New York for surgery. She filed 3,000 words on the conflict and humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka from her hospital bed.

Fact: Colvin met Paul Conroy in 2003 during the lead-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom.

In the film, Colvin meets Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan), a freelance photographer and former British artillery officer, in a U.S. military staging area prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and she takes him along to find a mass grave of hundreds of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s victims. The two longtime friends did really meet outside Iraq in 2003, although the reason Colvin approached Conroy in the first place is not shown onscreen. In real life, Conroy had gained some notoriety among the other journalists trying to get access to Iraq after he and a New York Times stringer built a raft in their Syrian hotel room and tried to use it to cross into Iraq. Attempting to make the crossing, Conroy was soon caught by Syrian authorities, who returned him to the hotel. Hearing about a photographer who built a boat, Colvin tracked down Conroy, and the two went out drinking until the early morning. Conroy says he didn’t actually become Colvin’s photographer after that—in reality he didn’t see her again for seven years—but even after they reunited, Colvin continued to affectionately call him “Boatman.”

Fact: Colvin interviewed Libyan Dictator Colonel Muammar Gadaffi, then reported on his death.

A Private War depicts the chaos of the Libyan uprising in 2011, during which Colvin interviews Colonel Gadaffi at the palace compound where he lives in luxury while his country disintegrates around him. In a later dispatch, Colvin reports on his death. Colvin really did interview the North African dictator multiple times. Her first encounter with him came in the late 1980s when she was still a relatively inexperienced correspondent and she spent most of an hour-long interview brushing off the then 45-year-old dictator’s advances. Gadaffi’s harassment didn’t end there. At a later point, the Colonel sent a nurse to test Colvin’s blood for HIV, apparently because he wanted to sleep with her. “She had a thing with Gadaffi,” Conroy tells TIME. “Or I suppose, really, he had a thing for her.” Years later, during the Libyan Civil War in 2011, Colvin was one of the last journalists to interview Gadaffi. Of his death, she wrote, “He called his enemies rats. Yet it was Muammar Gadaffi who was cornered in a sewer pipe, his cruel dictatorship of Libya ending in ignominy and death.”

Fiction: At the time of her death, Colvin was involved with Tony Shaw after divorcing her first husband, David Irens.

A Private War depicts Colvin in a rocky marriage with her husband, David Irens (Greg Wise). Years after their separation, she becomes involved with Tony Shaw (Stanley Tucci), a wealthy businessman who matches her “work hard, live hard” lifestyle. In reality, Irens and Shaw are fictional characters drawn in part from real people in Colvin’s life. Irens is loosely based on Colvin’s former husband Patrick Bishop, a historian, while Shaw is inspired by Richard Flaye, Colvin’s partner at the time of her death. For director Matthew Heineman, the decision to fictionalize the characters came out of both storytelling necessity and sensitivity to those still mourning Colvin’s death. “There were some characters that we were forced to create composites out of,” he tells TIME. “Out of respect for the characters involved, also given the timeline in which we told the story, in some cases it just made more sense.”

Fiction: Kate Richardson, a young Sunday Times reporter, accompanied Colvin though much of her reporting in the Middle East.

Kate Richardson (Faye Marsay) is introduced in the beginning of the film as a young, savvy journalist assigned to the Times foreign desk with Colvin. She appears throughout the film, following in Colvin’s footsteps in various conflict areas around the world. Richardson is actually a fictional character, meant to serve as a composite of various young journalists whom Colvin mentored throughout her career. “Marie was really generous with advice and help,” explains Conroy. “It just felt like a good side [of her] to get in there.”

Fiction: Norm Coburn, another journalist, was a longtime friend of Colvin’s who was killed in Libya in 2011.

Norm Coburn (Corey Johnson) is another of the film’s composite characters. In A Private War he appears in various locales, sometimes as a rival to Colvin, sometimes as a friend, before being killed while reporting on the Libyan Civil War. According to Conroy, Coburn is very loosely based on Tim Hetherington, a Vanity Fair contributing photographer killed in Misrata, Libya. Both Colvin and Conroy knew Hetherington personally. “It just felt very raw and sort of unnecessary to name him,” says Heineman. “And of course Marie lost many different colleagues throughout her career, and so Norm was really a character that represented a [mirror image] of her own mortality.”

Fact: Colvin and Conroy had a chance to leave Homs before she was killed and Conroy was injured in 2012.

In A Private War, Conroy and Colvin nearly leave the besieged, rebel-held city of Homs, Syria, before Colvin decides that she needs to go back. In real life, the two of them really did nearly leave. According to Conroy, they were smuggled out of the city in anticipation of a regime assault. When the attack didn’t materialize, they decided to head back. According to Conroy, he stopped at the mouth of the tunnel leading back into Homs. “I said, ‘Look, I’ve just got a really bad feeling about this,” Conroy tells TIME. “It doesn’t feel right, and I’ve never gone against my instinct.’” Colvin told him that she was going back into the city regardless, and Conroy decided to go with her for the assignment that would be, tragically, her last.

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Write to Alejandro de la Garza at alejandro.delagarza@time.com