FF80 - A Private War

Intro by Ben Harrison

News from the front is almost a quaint idea these days. The US is at war in a couple of countries, but that is not even Top 10 among the issues I see on my Twitter feed or the website of my newspaper. It was not always thus! News media has been as integral a part of warfare as any other element since the invention of movable type. In the newspaper era, dispatchers covering troop movements became a complicating element in the way nation states approached war.

The human costs of war and the reportage thereof became a sacrosanct element of warfare to change the calculus of how kings and politicians make the case for war when that cost would come under widespread scrutiny. It has reached its acme during the Vietnam War when televisions began to bring the vivid reality of the war into the American living room on a nightly basis. Reporters genuinely changed the public appetite for that war, just by sharing the stories of it, and it is presumably in the context of watching Vietnam through the eyes of skeptical reporters that Marie Colvin grew up and formed the core of her personality.

She is the subject of today's biopic, brilliantly inhabited by Rosamund Pike, and she was a war reporter so committed to her mission that she died in Syria just a few years ago, probably the target of an intentional hit by the Syrian government because she was exposing the atrocities they were inflicting on their people. Marie Colvin makes a fascinating focus for a character study. She was a hard-drinking eyepatch-wearing bad ass who refused to play by anyone's rules and bravely went right into the teeth of some of the most terrifying conflicts of the last several decades.

On the one hand she is convinced that she can inspire empathy and understanding in her readers if she tells the stories of the people affected by the war. On the other hand she is cynical and haunted as she attempts to set her own trauma to the side to continue her dogged pursuit of the story. We visit four wars and this film, probably a Friendly Fire record. We travel with Marie Colvin from Sri Lanka to Iraq II, Libya during the Arab Spring, and the Syrian Civil War, which as of this recording is ongoing. Colvin is occasionally holed up in a fancy hotel, but more often is zagging between Jersey-barriers as she efforts her way closer and closer to the hottest parts of the action.

She witnesses the horrors firsthand and reports them out, wins awards for reporting, rinse, repeat. The central question is whether it is working or not. She is reporting sometimes via Skype-connection to Anderson Cooper's evening news show and desperately trying to get us, here and now us, but also seven years ago us, to notice the bad things happening in our world. She wants us to empathize with the victims of those conflicts, see them as human, put ourselves in their shoes.

The film definitely believes that this effort is worthwhile. It is not a film about a lost cause, but it is also hard to avoid feeling a sense of tragedy with how much harder it was for Colvin to get our attention relative to those Vietnam reporters. The words on everybody's lips are: "Why have we been abandoned?" Today on Friendly Fire: A Private War.


B: Welcome to Friendly Fire, the war movie podcast that sees it so you don’t have to, but: You know? Maybe sometimes you should! I’m Ben Harrison…

A: … I’m Adam Pranica…

J: … and I’m John Roderick.

Was this film Oscar bait?

B: This movie did not do well at the box office. Not many people saw this.

A: I mean, what is a moviegoers appetite for this kind of reel?

J: It has got a strong female lead, so strong that she is wearing an eye patch.

B: It kind of feels like an Oscar-baity type of film!

J: It is and I feel like the Oscar-baity-ness of a couple of the performances and a couple of scenes… There is a lot of great acting in this, but there are a couple of Oscar-baity scenes that jarred me out of the moment and felt like ”acting!”

B: It was the part of Wayne’s World where they put ”Oscar clip” at the bottom of the screen.

J: It is a heavy movie and I think it is largely well done.

A: You guys are being incredibly cynical about a biopic that is well-acted and constructed. Maybe we could interrogate a little bit why you feel such a performance?

B: Why are you lumping me in with something John said?

A: I felt like you guys were in agreement?

J: Why are you lumping me in with you two Ding Dongs?

A: I do not feel the the cynicism for this film that you are coming right out of the gates with. Where are you getting this? I mean, people have described Rosamund Pike’s performance as being true to Marie Colvin’s nature. She nailed it! What about that is Oscar-bait?

B: Oscar-bait in the sense that there are strategic considerations when a film is greenlit and then released about what its position in the marketplace is and it was an early-November release and definitely had aspirations for nominations. She got nominated for a Golden Globe, but not an Oscar, and it is not to diminish the quality of the film at all to say that it is Oscar bait.

A: I am capable of sniffing Oscar-bait as a thing, I am not saying that this isn’t a thing that some films have or are capable of, for instance the Winston Churchill films that we saw felt that way, but I think there is a proximity to the real events here that is such that I don’t detect it at all. There is a recency here that makes it feel more important than would-be-baity instead.

Why was this not done as a documentary?

J: The film opens with a voiceover of what we assume is Rosamund Pike answering questions in an interview about how she would like to be remembered after she is gone. We don’t see her face, but we see scenes of the devastation in Syria as we listen to her describe how she would like to be remembered, and there was a tone to that voiceover that made me wince a little bit right at the top of the film. It is revealed at the very end of the film that that is not Rosamund Pike, but that is an actual clip of Marie Colvin being interviewed. The tone of the voice that causes me to wince is the intrinsic theatricality of a war correspondent that is the central plot of this movie, a war correspondent that in order to do that work they have to be self aggrandizing, they have to think that what they are doing is important when there is an argument that it is just voyeuristic. The character of Colvin is interrogating this throughout the film in herself and everybody that knows her is. She has seen more war than most soldiers, but she also consistently puts herself in harm’s way and it feels totally unnecessary sometimes.

B: I felt a lot of comparisons to Hurt Locker in this movie: Treating war as an addictive substance.

J: Yeah, and also Salvador I saw a lot of comparisons there. My reaction has to do with the fact that I imagined at one point in my life that I might be a war correspondent. This is the kind of job that appealed to me when I was young. It triggers something in me.

A: By all accounts, she was a difficult person to know and like and these scenes were true to her nature, if not true biographically. It may just be that you don’t like Marie Colvin.

J: No, I think I do like and admire Marie Colvin, but if you really want to get down to it this isn’t a straight biopic! It is very much like The Hurt Locker: It is stylistic, there is a lot of time line jumping around, there is this whole countdown to Syria conceit that we see at the start of the film. There is a lot of style in it. I am not against this movie, I am not against her and I am not against the portrayal, but I started off with a little bit of tone about it and it is maybe a trend these days that you can’t do a straight biopic, even about somebody that is super interesting. You have to have an Annie Lennox song, you have to have all this style. I was consistently not jolted out of the movie, but reminded that I was watching a rendition.

A: That is interesting because the director of this film has a pretty heavy and awarded history of documentary film. That is how he cut his teeth.

B: This is his first narrative feature.

A: Yeah, and what you consumed as style I consumed as technique grafted over from documentary as a way to tell this story.

B: I think his best-known documentary is Cartel Land, which is famously shot somewhat like war videography because he is on the border of the US and Mexico, following drug trade stuff and vigilantes and he got in the thick of it. His Wikipedia photo is of him in a bullet-proof vest with a handheld camera. I don’t think anything close to the kind of war correspondent that Marie Colvin was, but not a neophyte to that as a milieu. He actually knows what he is talking about.

J: That suggests the question which is: Why wouldn’t he make a documentary about Marie Colvin? There is plenty of footage about her, there is plenty of footage about all of these conflicts. I am not saying that making a narrative feature was a bad choice, but he also could have made a really powerful documentary about her, I’m assuming.

B: If we are going to take your idea of there being a certain conceit in being a war correspondent and follow it to its conclusion, maybe he is trying to justify that kind of conceit in a certain way.

J: Yeah, I think so!

The job of a war correspondent disappearing

A: How many episodes of Friendly Fire have we done? 80? To only now begin to develop an idea of a co-host taste in war films specifically while initially I was surprised at your initial reaction to this film, John, when I think about your feelings about a film like Sicario, it totally makes sense. There is a threshold in style that generally you are someone that dislikes. There is a limitation to the amount of style or the hand of a director in play that you immediately detect in a way that I am not as attuned to, and it is really interesting to argue that point.

J: I’m super zoomed-in on the job of a war correspondent. We are now living in a world where newspapers like The New York Times, The London Times, The Washington Post, they are cutting budgets, they are closing foreign offices, they are no longer paying for reporters like this, and there is a sense in this world of malleable truth that a reporter like Colvin who is sending these dispatches from Syria, gets put up on the news and then it switches over to somebody with a deep fake video of UFOs and it is all given this: ”Well, there are opinions on both sides! Back to you, Anderson!” It feels like something has died and this movie is maybe a eulogy for it! She was the last of a kind.

Should the US intervene in foreign conflicts? What constitutes a genocide?

B: That scene toward the end when she was skyping into Anderson Cooper, I remember the number: ”28000 civilians”, that was a big topic in the news and I remember at the time being very frustrated that the Obama administration didn’t seem to be able to muster any will to do anything about what Assad was doing in Syria. That moment in the scene when it cuts around to everybody all over the world watching her final report on CNN, almost knowing that it is her final report, it sort of implies that that made a huge difference in something, but instead what happened was that we were all aware that Syria was doing a huge atrocity in plain view of the world and nothing happened! We didn’t even as a country make a big effort to accommodate refugees.

A: I feel like this film is more about Marie Colvin than it is about the missed opportunities in conflicts around the world, and that is a shock to me because we are embedded with her in several of them and yet, the main takeaway I get from the film is about how tragic it is that she died the way that she did instead of the additional tragedy of the senselessness of the conflict she was embedded in to begin with. There is upriver conflict from the one that is being presented in the film and it is right there to consume and understand, but personally it was all about her and not about the conflict. Were you seeing it in the same way?

J: Colvin died in February of 2012 and it was August of 2012 that Obama gave his red line speech where he said if Assad uses chemical weapons past this point the US will not stand idly by. That speech is remembered as a foreign policy failure because of course the US did not know exactly what to do. Having made that speech and watching Assad cross that red line and doing nothing…

A: … was it an appetite for a war issue at that point? Was that the pushback?

J: It is a consistent problem in American foreign policy since the 1980s which is: We are expected to be the world’s police, we are expected to intervene in every humanitarian crisis, we expect ourselves to, it is a standard we hold ourselves to. This is the Rwanda problem. This is the Blackhawk Down scenario where we intervene and often just expect that if we hold our saber up high enough that all these brutal petty dictators will run and hide and they increasingly defy us. There are a thousand things people think we should have done in the case of Syria and Assad, but what do you do when the leader of a country decides that in order to accomplish the goal of staying in power he is going to murder 500.000 of his own people?

A: One of the fucked parts about it is that a citizen can’t look at this conflict and answer the question: ”Why here, but not there?” America goes into other countries and ”’saves’” them, and I am paraphrasing your argument here, but ”Why Iraq and not Syria?” is a simplistic question to ask in a case like this.

J: Well, yeah! What we did in Iraq was illegal and you don’t even have to be that cynical to see that oil was the motivator. The Monroe Doctrine prohibits us from assassinating leaders of other countries and that is why we go through all these tortured justifications. We could have dropped a bomb on Saddam Hussein, we could have dropped a bomb on Assad…

B: we tried with Gadhafi!

J: Well, but you got to have some plausible deniability…

B: That is actually one of the things that Marie Colvin brought to light: That the US attempted to take Gadhafi out by bombing his palace and he very narrowly escaped.

J: It is a strange trick…

A: What is the threshold of genocide?

J: That is being argued constantly!

A: This is a question that I had in this film! Once you were able to make that transition: ”Is this not a problem 50 cruise missiles can’t solve?”

J: The thing about genocide is that the premise is that you are trying to eliminate a people. Assad wasn’t trying to…

A: … and civilians is not a quality for that?

J: It is not a people, right! He is not trying to eliminate the Syrians, he is just trying to eliminate the Syrians that don’t get in line. If all of the dissenters were Kurds and all of the dead were Kurds, I think we would call it a genocide.

A: I think occasionally, at least in my mind, a quantity is attached to that word instead of a representation, probably and definitely incorrectly, but I couldn’t help but think about all of these noncombatants just hold up in the fetal position, just waiting!

J: Wrong place, wrong time!

A: Yeah, nowhere to go! And it felt genocidal to me, the imagery of it! Maybe the final piece of this false construction I am making around genocide is that the buttons are being pushed by a single leader, the Assad figure as being its locus, this seems to be also in keeping with the genocides of the past: They come from one specific person these orders, too and that is what made it feel familiar to me, all of those things together.

J: Assad is trying to cling to power as opposed to… There is a xenophobia in in a genocide that I don’t think was here. This was happening during a time when across the Arab world there were uprisings, sparked by this somewhat peaceful revolution in Tunisia, and it caught fire and all across the Arab world there were street protests and there was a sudden sense of this thing that the West had dreamed about for decades: That democracy was going to sweep across the whole Arab sphere and all these autocrats were going to tumble down. This was Brenner’s whole vision for Iraq: We were going to come in and take out Saddam and they were going to build a Massachusetts there. Different Arab countries responded in different ways…

A: We are going to prosecute Saddam in a fucking Suffolk County Courthouse.

B: Allahu Akbar!

Is this job suidal or self-destructive? What heros do we reward?

J: But back to Colvin! Her story ends in Syria, but it certainly wasn’t confined to it.

B: I was thinking that this movie dramatically brings up the number of wars we have seen depicted in this podcast because I don’t think we have spent any time in Sri Lanka. I guess we have seen things set on that island, but not war set on that island. I can’t think of a lot of films that spend any time on it and it caused me to consider that that and East Timor are things that we should have represented on our list and I am not sure if we have a way to have them on our list or not.

J: If those films have been made, yeah! I guess that is the point of telling the story of Colvin because she was out there making that somewhat insistent point on the front page of the Sunday London Times over and over and over again: ”Look I am out here! How can the world sleep while children are being murdered?” and her frustration at watching the world sleep. We see a handful of scenes where her editors have this hot story and they are arguing about whether or not it is too much of a bummer to put on the front page of The Sunday Times and whether they should go with a safer story, and they usually make the decision just gleefully because of the circulation:
”This is going to be a big hit for the paper!” That isn’t played as cynically within the film as I am making it sound, but it is consistently there. We see her covered with blood and mud, she sends in her report, and then there are these Fleet Street suits: ”What do you think? Is this good enough for the front page?”

A: There is a: ”If it bleeds it leads” sensibility to it, but to me there was a greater cynicism which was coming from the foreign editor at her paper, which is: ”Can Marie take it? Is she well enough to send back out in the field?”, which edged so close into manipulation and exploitation. Marie as depicted in this film is a flawed person, a broken person even, someone who doesn’t feel manipulated into her circumstances. She is someone who wants to go to these places but is also maybe not someone that should be trusted to advocate for her well-being at any point. It is such an interesting conflict between to her and her workplace in that way, because they both sort of want the same thing, except only one of those two parties can say it. Only Marie can say it. That that slimy Sean Ryan guy is just incidentally there. He presents himself as someone who cares, like in those scenes where she is in a hospital. He can’t ask directly if she is well enough to work.

J: He always kisses her at every… when she shows up to receive her awards he is always there on the dais!

A: Right! You balance that against the super-heroism of the Marie Colvin character, and this is on-the-nose superhero movie: She sees a story on a television behind the person she is talking to and then in the next scene she has gone into the phone booth and then she is on the back of the truck in that war zone.

J: I just went on a long motorcycle trip and then almost immediately afterwards a very famous motorcyclist, Carlin Dunne, who was in sight of the finish line of setting a new record in the Pike’s Peak Hill Climb died on the racecourse and everybody eulogized him, he was a great racer and this was a tragedy, and it really made me reflect on where in our culture we reward risk-taking, we reward edge-case behavior, and war movies are a great place to examine it because we see over and over again the heroes of these films are putting themselves consistently in harm’s way and oftentimes they die and we eulogized them. There are just as many instances in our culture where people that are 24 years old put themselves in harm’s way and die and we criticize them or critique them. This is maybe an edge example, but there is an awful lot of suicide prevention efforts in the world to keep 24 year olds who have a death wish alive. If you die from an overdose it is pathetic, but if you try to surmount El Capitan and fall to your death it is heroic. In Colvin’s case she really is a junkie, not just for adrenaline, but she is situating herself as central in these conflicts. She is making herself a character in them, and we laud her for it. It feels suicidal!

B: Is it suicidal or just self-destructive or do you not draw a distinction?

J: Well no, I guess you are right! I do make the distinction between someone standing on the edge of a bridge, which we see her do in this film also, or someone who is shooting up dope as part of being a Rock musician. It triggers me because of something I recognize, which is sitting in a hotel lobby, typing away on the computer, while the plaster falls down and everyone in the place is wearing flak jackets and we are all chain-smoking and and writing like: ”Dateline: Fallujah. The people of the city are being…” That is so dramatic personally, it is a dramatic scene. It is like watching Amy Winehouse self-destruct. We love what we are getting, we love the music, we all know she is doomed, and somehow we are consuming her destruction with this voracious appetite and when she dies we mourn or we take a moment to reflect, but it is a consumption of a person where the person is destroying themselves as a form of art.

Does the audience have the capacity for conflict reporting?

B: There is a perverse kind of optimism in the ethos that Marie Colvin talks about in this movie, the idea that people will connect with people and if you just tell these stories and talk about the human cost of going to war it will make people care. She seems to truly believe that if she can get just outside of the sphere of destruction she can tell a story that will change people’s minds about what to do about this.

A: That poignancy was maybe the most tragic part of the film for me: How incorrect her idealism was really, because we are in a time where you can’t agree on what a person’s facts are even if a person is there, reporting from a war zone. There are some people who will never get that news coverage because that isn’t the channel they watch, or even if they did get it it wouldn’t align with their world view in such a way that it wouldn’t move their needle to begin with. It is great and brave and idealistic to believe what she believed, but it is tragic to believe that also because it is not true.

J: Journalists like Colvin… There is a pretty convincing read of history that they ended the Vietnam War by doing precisely this kind of reporting, but by the time she was doing her work there was, as you say Adam, this splintering of what the truth was, but also we have outrage fatigue, which was absolutely true during the Bosnian War: A lot of those early stories about the Bosnian war had those really complicated maps where the whole idea of the Balkans needed to be explained to people and it still didn’t make any sense, when you are like: ”Well, these are the Bosnian Serbs, those of the Bosnian Croats…” and after a time the American people and what we call the West, this is true in the UK too, there is just an information overload. But right now, if she was reporting from Syria with this stuff there are people that would dismiss her reporting, there were people that wouldn’t see it, there were people that would say: ”Everything the United States does is bad!”, there are so many hot takes, there are so many people that say: ”Why do we care what is going on in Syria when our own police are committing murder in the streets?”

A: That question of capacity is so confounding because the only way to get around the limits of a person’s capacity for stuff like this is for there to be a protracted amount of peace time, so as to make the spike so pronounced and shocking that you would get someone’s attention with it, and because global war has been sustained for so long, how do you possibly solve for this? How do you actually make it affect people? It is a question I am going to be thinking about for a long time after this movie. This happened a number of years ago and there is still no solution to these problems, there is still a lack of capacity for their consumption, another Marie is going to pop up and go to these places and what are we going to do?

J: Or maybe not! Maybe newspapers won’t fund this kind of reporting anymore! The nations of Europe responded to this by taking in tens of thousands of Syrian refugees.

Marie vs Kate, being in for the trophies

A: There is just a whiff of a professional rivalry between Marie and Kate and mostly it is due to the idea of her editor finding Kate a more reliable reporter out in the field because of Marie’s many personal failings.

B: Kate isn’t pounding a quart of vodka before she heads out to the frontline.

A: Marie is in Sean Ryan’s office for that lunchtime visit and she sees that Kate’s trophies are in front of Marie’s and that is maybe the only part in the movie where I got the sense that her motivations were ambitious in any way. This film doesn’t make a super-strong case that she is someone who is going for the trophies that she is receiving…

J: … but she is a Rock star and she is very conscious of being a Rock star. We see a lot of award ceremonies in this film where she swoops in…

A: … but there is never that point… There are war films where we see the war photographer snapping pictures and the photographer is like: ”There is my Pulitzer!” This film never gets even close to that being a reason for her being in these places, I don’t feel.

B: Right!

J: Right!

B: The the award ceremonies are there to seem incongruous to what her natural environment is…

A: …and they are not comfortable for her I don’t think either!

B: Yeah, the only place she seems to truly be comfortable is in the most uncomfortable places, like the collapsing building with the rocks coming down from the ceiling because they are being shelled.

J: But at the end of the movie we see as the credits roll a montage of her actual columns with her byline, her pull-quote as the headline, and her extremely cool-looking reporter photograph of her with her eyepatch, her extremely rakish eyepatch.

B: There is an amazing photo of her in the Vanity Fair article that this film is based on.

J: The woman that wrote that article deserves a biopic about herself. She has written some incredible profiles over the years and they made the movie The Insider about her piece…

A: That is Marie Brenner’s fault? That is great! Wow!

J: There is an incredible story about how Donald Trump walked up to Marie Brenner when she was sitting at Tavern On The Green or something and poured a glass of wine down the front of her shirt because she had written some shitty thing about him. She is her own hero journalist!

A: God, what a badge of honor. That’s great! I thought he was a teetotaller, though?

J: He picked up a glass of wine off of somebody else’s plate. He threw a Big Mac down the front of her shirt!

A: And when you are famous they will let you do it!

J: He pulled it out of the inside pocket of one of those blousy jackets.


John identifying with the desire to put himself in harm’s way

J: I watched this film identifying with her so much and I feel like identifying with her from a place inside myself that I despise because I can’t help but feel that I am motivated by conflicting desires and conflicting ambitions in putting myself in harm’s way in a similar fashion, and I see it in her even through a portrayal of her. It was a tough watch for me because I remember all these conflicts, I remember all this reporting, and I envied it a little, I envied her self-destruction in front of us all, and that envy in me is something about myself I despise. I don’t think I have the wrong take on her because I feel it so acutely.

B: I’ve heard you talk on one of your other shows, John, about the many days you wake up not really knowing what you are going to do that day. That would drive a lot of people crazy, but you have an optimism about your ability to take the slings and arrows that a day throws at you and turn it into something. Having known you for several years now and watched you live your life, I wonder if that is an optimism you compare to the thing we were talking about with Marie Colvin believing that what she is doing can make a difference.

J: If I had a job where I was at a cocktail party and I looked over someone’s shoulder and there was a news report on and the next day I was there, that is really how I almost feel like I was meant to live and I did live that way, but in a muted way for many years: Walk out the door and follow the smoke, or follow the helicopters!

B: …follow the wafting cheese smell?

A: You guys are just talking about Pepé Le Pew, right?

J: He is extremely problematic!

B: Yeah, Pepé is canceled!

J: That is somewhat of the envy I feel because she gave herself a sense of purpose, but if what she was doing and what war correspondents are doing is self-justifying, if they are bringing that story to the world and putting it in front of our faces and that is an unalloyed good they wouldn’t need to justify it all the time. There is so much justification of it in this movie and it is accurate to the class or to the cult, because I don’t think it is clear! They do sit around in in hotels in Fallujah and convince one another that what they are doing is shining a light, and then they have to get up the next day and make that case again because the world doesn’t maybe support that thesis. They are shining a light and we go: ”Oh, aha!” and then you turn the page and you do the Sudoku.

Meeting Gadhafi

B: The scene where she sits down with Gadhafi really struck me because she does not have any fear about calling him on the more brutal things he is doing. I feel like I have been a couple of times in a room with a politician or somebody with some power that did something that I disagree with, but politicians have a ton of magnetism and I am also not a journalist, so who gives a shit what I say to them or don’t, but she is in a room with a man who is in a position to disappear her and not really pulling any punches, and this is after other journalists were killed.

A: Does her fame not give her an invincibility?

J: Yeah, she is protected by her notoriety!

A: It has got to be such a breath of fresh air for Gadhafi to…

B: … not have a yes man!

A: You live a life surrounded by sycophants and all of a sudden you’ve got 1) another famous and then 2) a famous who is giving you your shit right back at you!

J: Crucially, he completely blows her off and she is just sitting there like: ”Oh, all right!” We see this on the Internet a lot where someone stands up at a public meeting and shouts: ”J’accuse!” at a politician and then the clip goes viral and we all feel a certain Schadenfreude because somebody has to get hauled out of a public meeting because they’re talking about… half of those people are just shouting that jet fuel can’t melt steel beams, but the other half are doing what she did and saying: ”Murderer!”, but they get hauled out and the clip did what, exactly? We are living in a time when our president has been denounced and demonstrated to be a villain over and over and over and he does what Ghadafi did in this movie, which was like: ”I love talking to you! You are so pretty!”

B: I am just looking forward to corpse selfie!

J: I couldn’t help in that moment but think like: ”Dude, corpse selfie with Gadhafi!” Who did she have to be to be in that room?

A: A lot of likes on the ’gram!

B: That moment more than any other typifies the shift in the way we consume these things, right?

J: Right, because her professional photographer… they are standing there in the room, people are taking selfies with the body, and she obviously can’t take a selfie, but she stage-directs her photographer, pushes Gadhafi’s face over with her shoe, and he takes a couple of good photographs of it, and then they walk out as people are just laying down next to him, like: ”Check me out!”

B: … and got the Snapchat filter with the face swap!

A: A roomful of Lynndie England’s

J: But you are right: That was a chilling moment.

How was the style of this film so effective?

A: I know we take great pains in not comparing films to other films in this project. (J: One of us does!) I know I do, but I am going to steer the conversation into that idea quickly because this film actually makes e-mail stressful in a way that a film like the Green Zone does not. I really felt things when I watched Marie Colvin write to her boyfriend for example from the war zone, and that was one of the last images of her where she is sending that message away before she flees the building. Why was that effective in a film like this and not effective in a film like the Green Zone? Is it because Marie Colvin is just a more interesting character?

J: This film really fleshes her out! We are not left wondering what she is motivated by. We are not left wondering where she came from or who she is. I really felt like we knew her pretty well and we are suffering along with her and the Green Zone just felt a lot more that we were being given a sketch.

A: How much danger can you possibly be in if you are in a hanger with a safe full of cash? You are going to be fine!

B: Mr. Rogers always said: When there is a dangerous situation, look for a safe full of cash! That is the safest place to be!

A: And then what did you think of its bookend construction in terms of opening on the shot that it finishes with and opening on the voiceover and then finishing with voiceover. Occasionally we will watch a film where that is varying degrees of effective.

J: We are counting down to her death from the beginning of the movie. Is that what you wanted?

A: I didn’t realize we were seeing their bodies in the beginning. Were we supposed to know that?

J: No, that was supposed to rock our world at the end.

B: From the way you described it John, your experience was that the voiceover was a reveal that that was the real Marie Colvin’s voice at the end and I assumed when I first started watching it that I was hearing the real Marie Colvin’s voice. I don’t know why that was the assumption I leapt to. I heard that as the real Marie Colvin’s voice, immediately forgot it, but then in spending time with Rosamond Pike’s portrayal was really blown away when we got that last bit of the clip at the end at how much she nailed this incredibly unique pattern of speech that the real Marie Colvin had.

J: I had that same feeling and honestly, in hearing that little snippet of her voice at the end I was no longer annoyed by it, it no longer triggered me, because Rosamund Pike had done such an effective job of letting me get to know this person. I could hear her actual responses and I didn’t have that feeling of like: ”Huuuhhh!” I was engaged and I was actually stunned when it was revealed that it was her and I thought that was extremely effective. But the countdown to her death as a conceit, as a framing device?

A: You don’t need to artificially juice that, do you?

J: If this movie had just started when she started as a war correspondent and had walked us all the way through and her fat had been pulled from the fire over and over and over again, when she finally died it would have been more effective if we hadn’t spent the whole film waiting for it.

A: I wonder to what degree that is a documentarian’s impulse specifically because so often in the constraints of a doc you are telling a story in a linear fashion and you are doing anything you can to make that interesting, your talking heads and your B-roll: ”How can I possibly hold someone’s attention?” and these constructions are a way to do that. This pattern of storytelling, this book-ending of things, are techniques that are in a documentarian’s portfolio and I just wonder if that was a natural inclination for someone of Matthew Heineman’s pedigree. I wonder if there was ever any thought of him not doing it like that.

J: Right, like you were saying that is the kind of style that jumps out to me as a thing I rankle at. He didn’t slow-pan across any sepia-toned photographs while people read letters home in Virginia-accents! ”My Darling Clementine, I’m here in Syria, thinking of your love, thinking of your heaving bosom!”

A: All of the Clementine scenes were cut out of this film, unfortunately


Moment of pedantry, casting real refugees

A: Before we review, are there any pedantic moments, Ben?

B: The only one of any interest at all on IMDB is that there were teleprompters visible in the hospital scene, reflected in somebody’s eyeglasses, and I wondered if that was because the performers weren’t off book or what?

J: But not in a newsroom seen in the middle of a battle?

B: It was a very short little entry on the goofs section, so I don’t know if that was the hospital in Seylon or the hospital in Homs, which thing it is referring to, but I thought that that was an interesting note on technique. I listened to a little radio piece about this film where they interviewed an NPR war correspondent who had a personal relationship with Marie Colvin who spoke very highly of Rosamund Pike’s portrayal and also they talked to the director of the film and one thing he said that I thought was very interesting was: They filmed all of the war scenes in Lebanon, but they brought in extras who were refugees from all of the real conflicts that were depicted, people who actually had experienced some of what was being shown, and it was important to him to actually work with people that had on the ground real expertise in the kind of people that they were portraying, which was a pretty, for this being his first feature, a more complicated thing to ask for than most directors would.

A: Could you imagine you are on set and you are directing both background primary and primary actors, you are trying to conjure a feeling and a reality, what do you possibly tell a person who has been there in order to evoke that feeling and to make a scene work?

J: ”Can you do what you did when your own family was discovered buried in the desert, and just ululate in that way?”

A: Could you never direct them in any other way? I sort of feel like that!

J: I thought that that was evident and extremely effective in this movie because we are looking at Iraqis, Libyans, Syrians, and Hollywood’s normal way of dealing with this would be to just cast out of the extra pool of Arab-looking people. We have seen this a lot in films where the lead-Iraqi is played by somebody from South America who just looks Arab (B: Close enough for our untrained eye), but you really do get a sense of Iraqis, Syrians, and Libyans, although all Arab Muslims, being different people. You feel it! When we switch to another location you feel that location in just the carriage of the people and their appearance.

A: That is really well done. There is no Val Verde-fication happening in this film.

B: He is an interesting filmmaker and just at the beginning of his career. I will be eager to see the next thing he does!

Reviewing the film

A: Well, the next thing we do is review the film. For each film we discuss a custom rating system is made and I am the maker of that system. It is a scale of one to five things. The thing is the thing that catches my eye in the film of a particular nature and in A Private War there is a moment fairly early on where Marie Colvin and her photographer are being driven to a war zone. It is in Iraq, correct me if I am wrong, but they come up to a checkpoint and they are stopped. There is a tension about this checkpoint that is not different from other depictions of checkpoints in war zones. This doesn’t feel lethal at this moment because there is a capacity for conversation, there is a translator, they are understanding each other, they are not at the end of someone’s gun at this point, and one of the technologies that Marie Colvin uses to get past circumstances like these is: She uses the ignorance of the person she is interacting with in order to gain access. The instrument she uses in this scene is a gym membership card that she uses to prove that she is an aid worker who works for the British Health Department because the card says British Health on it, but it is a gym membership card and this is the card that grants her access to a country in an area that she wouldn’t ordinarily be allowed in, and that is who Marie Colvin is. That is who she is to us. She gets us access to these areas that we would ordinarily not be allowed in and it is her creative thinking that makes that happen, it is her creativity and storytelling that paints these vivid pictures of her experiences in these places. As I was watching this movie I really feel that of the 80 films that we have seen for Friendly Fire she is near the top in terms of heroism. We can adjudicate to what degree she has got a death wish. I don’t see her as someone to feel sorry for and maybe I should. I see her as a hero that belongs in the pantheon of war film heroes that we have experienced on Friendly Fire. A lot of war films we watch are incredibly sad and maybe the saddest part of this film is thinking about her faith in humanity and the amount of effort she puts towards sharing the truth of her circumstances with people who maybe are undeserving. I felt sometimes watching this film that I was undeserving of her effort. It made me deeply uncomfortable to realize that. I am not doing anything because of her reporting. She is out there in order to encourage that and I still do nothing. What is it going to take? That made me really sad and it made me really admire her strength and her bravery. The film itself has some flaws, it is stylized in a way that might not work for some viewers, but I thought her character was the thing that stood out most to me and her character was such a bright light that it really overshadowed every other thing about the film. I am really glad that I got to know her through the film and for that reason I am going to go 4.5 gym membership cards. I think this is a film that should be seen. I hope a lot of people do! I hope this inspires people to become reporters, if not field reporters for conflicts like these. I think this is important work and great work.

B: I agree. I was surprised that this movie was as good as it was because this was on a bus bench across the street from my house, this was the movie being advertised in my neighborhood for a little while and I remember the last movie I had seen with Rosamund Pike in it was Seven Days in Entebbe, which has stuck with all three of us despite none of us at the time thinking it was a particularly great film. I feel we bring it up as often as some of the great movies that we have seen.

A: It sure indicated a willingness on Rosamond Pike’s part to get into it. She is a brave actor!

B: I agree! I saw the ads and nothing about the poster made me feel like I knew what the movie was and I didn’t ever see a trailer for it and I just never felt motivated to go see the movie and I feel bad about that. I feel like this is a movie that probably would have been even more impactful on the big screen. It is a story that I hope more people hear about. What war correspondents do is important and I agree with what John said that its impact seems to have diffused somewhat in the outrage-fatigue that we all feel in the social media era, but knowing about what is going on is better than not knowing about what’s going on and I hope we as a society can find a way to continue to support this kind of work and maybe also support it in ways aside from monetary, but support it in the ways of helping people that do this kind of work with the mental fallout of witnessing what they have signed up to witness. So: I think it is a very good, but imperfect movie, and I will give it 4 gym memberships.

J: We started off right out of the gate talking about the Oscar-baitness of it. It set an initial tone of criticism (B: … because Adam got really mad at me for saying that!) Adam got mad, but that set a tone where it sounded like you and I didn’t like it, Ben. I think this is sometimes confusing to Friendly Fire listeners that we will criticize a movie in pretty strong terms throughout the film and then give it strong ratings because I think that is just our instinct to do. I really liked this movie. I thought Rosamund Pike did a tremendous performance. It obviously triggered me a lot of different ways. I remember seeing the poster for this and this film was on airplanes a lot this spring. I saw the opportunity to watch it over and over and I didn’t because I figured we would see it within the show.

B: I definitely have a hesitancy to put on a movie or go out to a movie about war since we started this podcast, just because I’m like: ”I see enough as it is! It don’t need to do it in my free time also!”

J: Looking at the poster of her with the eyepatch on, obviously sitting in the back of a pickup truck or something, I knew exactly what this movie was and I figured it was Oscar-bait, I figured it was a film that was not going to be fun to watch and you weren’t meant to enjoy it, but you were meant to be punished by it and I think it succeeded. The whole notion of a foreign correspondent, the whole idea that news is something that is good for us, virtuous, to consume, is something that that I grew up with. It almost feels anachronistic now. There was a time when an informed person read the newspaper all the way through and it was a thick newspaper and they watch the evening news and they watched the shows after the evening news that dissected the news of the day. We critique that time now because it was a time of monolithic culture. It was a time when there were only three television stations, it was a time when we agreed what the news was and we agreed on the idea of journalistic integrity, but also the idea that a journalist could be neutral and not have a viewpoint. And we have spent the last 20 years or more, the last 50 years, looking at that idea of of a monolithic culture and making in a lot of ways very apt critiques of it because it is not an inclusive way of presenting the truth. What we by definition lost was the sense that you would sit down at the end of the day and consume the work of someone like this and share a common understanding with other people that consumed it so that the next day you would talk around the water cooler about the war in Syria. We don’t have that anymore and I don’t think we will regain it anytime soon because it requires that everybody consume the same news. We see her also bridge this time because she says many times: ”I am not interested in what kind of airplane dropped the bomb. I am interested in the human story!”, but she gets herself in the narrative and she is not just an outside observer. She has a moral take on what is happening and she is an editorialist as much as she is a journalist.

B: I thought it was so interesting in that CNN interview when she uses the word ”lie” and Anderson Cooper can’t help but talk about how unusual it is to hear that word

J: Right, and that was then! That was 2012! So much has changed in the last seven years!

A: But not that! Not the reluctance to use that word!

J: In the mainstream media you are absolutely right, but there is so much other media now. The mainstream media is still catering to the mainstream, but when was the last time you sat down, not in an airport, and watched a half an hour of CNN?

A: I avoid it!

J: Yeah, right! And nobody sits and reads the newspaper all the way through anymore because: What newspaper do you trust?

B: Well, I’m not a sheeple!

J: That’s right! You are not a sheeple, Ben! None of us are! Except maybe Adam.

A: But if you were to review the film, John?

J: I thought the performance was great. I thought the style didn’t really have a major impact on how good the film was and the story that it told. I thought it told the story excellently. This is absolutely a war film. We see sometimes journalists in the background of movies that we are watching. We will be following the story arc of a soldier and we will see somebody in a flak jacket in the background with a camera.

A: Interesting how this film flips that on its head. There are so few soldiers depicted in this film, rarely any.

J: I agree that this is a great movie and my own personal feeling that war correspondents are not maybe superheroes, but are flawed and they are Rock stars and I have an awful lot of feeling about Rock stars who die. This is maybe the job I wish I had had and I would be dead now and you guys would have some other doofus on your podcast.

B: This podcast would suck without you, John!

A: I think you would have made a great war correspondent, but I am personally glad you didn’t go in that direction!

J: I am not trying to steal any valor and suggest that anything I’ve ever done is…

A: Well, your eyepatch suggests otherwise, John!

J: I will give this movie 4 gym memberships and the clipped corner of a 5th gym membership, 4.25 gym memberships.

A: All right, maybe that kind that they give you for your keychain?

J: Yeah, the little one with the UPC symbol? No, I was thinking more of the broken gym membership that she used to jimmy a door on her way to uncovering an atrocity.

Who is your guy?

B: John, did you have a guy?

J: Oh yeah, for sure I had a guy! After she has uncovered the killing fields in Iraq and she goes back to the hotel where all the journalists are collected and they are all sitting in there under emergency lighting, typing away their stories, and her photographer is there they are just starting to bond with each other, the young cub reporter that she feels competitive with is there, the whole cast of people is there, and little by little people fade away, like: ”Well, I am going to go catch some sleep!” and as soon as her photographer escort younger partner bids Good Night and heads upstairs she immediately looks across the room and there is a reporter, a middle-aged grizzled white-bearded guy in a flak jacket sitting across the room and they make eye contact and you can just tell that they have been waiting for everybody else to go away because they look at each other instantly and there is just this almost imperceptible look that goes across her face that says: ”Right, let’s get out of here!” and it is clear they wave known each other for decades, that they have slept together in war zones around the world. It is not revealed who this guy is, but he just is a seasoned combat reporter. She has just uncovered a killing field hours before and they go up to some dusty hotel room and just go at it.

A: She goes to the hotel room with him for comfort, but it is there that we understand what her PTSD feels like and how it manifests because it is not hearing the backfiring of a car that makes her dive for cover or anything like that. It is instead visited upon her at times that can’t be predicted, she is thinking about the things that she has seen as in the act of lovemaking and then she is flashing back and forth and forward and backwards in time and she is experiencing all of these things with him in that room. It is a depiction of PTSD I don’t feel like we have gotten before and it was really affecting!

J: Yeah, it is the moment when she starts to come unglued in front of us, but that guy and his wolfish smile and that little rendezvous where they both know what the deal is and she has the respect for him to recognize him as a peer. I am that guy and he was my guy. Of anybody in the film I just wanted to be him, not because of this one particular encounter, but just like: ”What’s his life?”

A: How many times in this film did you have a smile on your face? I feel like that was one and maybe the only time. That feeling of having that connection across the room and: ”It’s on!”

J: Yeah, and the entire scene up until that point you suddenly understand that they are both like: ”Get the fuck out of here, you guys! Everybody clear this room!”They know the other one is there and they have made no sign of it. Really cool scene!

A: My guy was Rita who is Marie’s longtime friend as depicted in the film. The thing that made her my guy was that she clearly gets how broken Marie is and also understands her brokenness and knows that she can’t fix it. She never makes an attempt at intervention in any way. She softly asserts her power in a: ”Are you all right?” kind of way, or: ”Why don’t you come home with me?” kind of way

J: She hits her kind of hard in that last ”When did you become an alcoholic?” scene, but then she backs off of it.

A: She never goes all the way into tough love and intervention and I think there is something familiar about that with some people. You know that that person needs you too much to risk blowing up the friendship for the sake of true intervention and you are forced to just be there for them to the degree that maintains the relationship because that sometimes is the best help that you can provide: being there in that way. I thought like Rita probably was a person who represented a number of people in Marie’s life who cared but just could not go the distance in risking a friendship to save her.

J: I have seen you do this vis-a-vis Ben’s Marxism: You tiptoe around it, you don’t want to lose the friendship, but you are watching it kill him.

A: We are entangled in so many ways, risking the relationship is the least of my problems.

J: You have a shared checking account, right?

A: Its financial at that point!

J: You are worried that Ben is one day going to give all your money away to the flack gorillas?

A: Yeah, so Rita is my guy. who is your guy, Ben?

B: My guy is Marad (?). He is the fixer and driver that they meet up with when they get to Iraq. He is my guy just because of that scene where they get pulled out of the car and he is stuck translating for her while she is telling a bunch of lies to the guys with guns.

A: He is the guy in the gym membership scene, yeah?

B: Yeah, and he clearly has a lot of misgivings, but also has to ”yes, and” the put-on because if he doesn’t they might get shot or something. That is basically my role in the Behind Enemy Lines Toyota that is this podcast.

A: Boy, it is always a Toyota, isn’t it?

J: Yeah, it is!

B: What is up with the Toyota Motor Corp. always selling their pickup trucks to rebels?

J: In the same way that Peugeot 403s were the taxi cab of Africa throughout the 1970s, the Toyota Hilux is the rebel pickup for sure.

B: It is crazy: In the four countries I have been into in Africa you see Hiluxes everywhere and I have been fortunate not to see the ones with the machine guns mounted in the bed of the pickup, but it is just a normal car.

A: That pickup truck should only be used for taking Jennifer to the lake or for Biff to put two coats of wax on. That is the only context I want to see that truck, but a million other times you see it as something a machine gun is mounted onto the back of a war zone. It is just too bad!

B: ”Doc, you built a time machine out of a Toyota Hilux?”

J: I’m sorry, a Peugeot 504 is the one…

B: Oh man, I am glad we caught that, because…

A: Ben is such a Peugeot pedant, I am shocked that got past his goalie.

B: I don’t care about the specific model of car, Adam. I care about the stories of the people in the car!

Chosing the next movie

A: Well‚ I care greatly about the story we tell on the next episode. Why don’t we figure out what movie we are going to watch?

J: What is this beautiful little thing you have here in front of me on this table?

A: That is my penis!

J: I love it, but I am talking about this other green ball!

A: It is a 120-sided die.

J: Wow, a 120-sided die! What is that called? Does it have a name?

A: It is a 120-sided die.

J: Okay, well here we are! We have a 120-sided die. I am going to build a little cage for it, a little box out of Adam’s copy of Be Here Now (album by Oasis), his best man company first aid kit, the classic Yin Chao blister packet box, my phone, and this bottle of indoor plant food. Now I feel like I can safely roll this die and it won’t fall on the floor. Here we go! 120-sided die! Okay, there it is! I am going to say 32 is the one that it comes up with.

B: 32 takes us to Vietnam. This is a 1989 Brian De Palma film: Casualties of War. John, you added this to the list, any thoughts going into it?

J: I added it to the list because I didn’t see it at the time. 1989 this movie came out and I was in Europe on my first European walkabout and I remember it, this is post-Platoon, post-Born on the 4th of July, an era of Vietnam films. It had Sean Penn who was at the peak of his early career, and then Michael J. Fox in a dramatic role. I remember seeing it and thinking that I on the one hand had an obligation to see it and on the other hand I was not ready for this!

A: ”Doc, you said a war movie? In Vietnam?”

J: So I missed it and I never saw it. I never got it on VHS or anything, this is one of those movies that was on my list of ”Oh, I should have seen that!”

B: Well, let’s see if the V.C. get away with calling him chicken.

J: ”Hey, why are you wearing a life preserver!”

B: All right. That will be next week, we will leave it with Robs from here. So, for John Roderick and Adam Pranica, I’ve been Ben Harrison. To the victor go the spoiler alerts.

R: Friendly Fires is a MaximumFun podcast hosted by Ben Harrison, John Roderick and Adam Pranica. It is produced by me, Rob Schulte. Our theme music is War by Edwin Starr, courtesy of Stone Agate music, and our logo art is by Nick Dittmore. If you feel like supporting the show, head on over to maximumfun.org/donate! It helps us keep the lights on over here a Friendly Fire and as an added bonus you will get access to our pork chop feed as well as all of the other bonus content on Maximum Fun. If you would like to share the show online use the hashtag #friendlyfire. You can find Ben on Twitter @benjaminahr, Adam is @cutfortime, John is @johnroderick and I’m @robkschulte. Thanks! We will see you next week!

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