'Under the Wire': Film Review

Grueling look at the price war correspondents pay.
11/16/2018

Chris Martin offers the doc version of the Marie Colvin story told in the new feature 'A Private War.'

Coincidental timing cuts both ways for Chris Martin's documentary Under the Wire, which chronicles the heroic reporting trip that cost war correspondent Marie Colvin her life. The recent art house release of Matthew Heineman's biopic A Private War (starring Rosamund Pike as Colvin) will have left some moviegoers more interested in the New York-raised journalist, who was better known in England for her work in the Sunday Times. But it may also leave the impression that Colvin's 2012 death in Homs was the whole story, causing them to shift in their seats when the doc gets to that point 50 minutes in, then keeps going.

As it happens, the Western journalists who weren't killed in that attack — including photographer Paul Conroy, played by Jamie Dornan in the feature — had a hell of a time getting out of Syria, and had every reason to think they'd die there. Their story deserves to be told, especially given the importance of their work in exposing civilian massacres. But as a big-screen experience Under the Wire feels lopsided, overshadowed by Colvin's larger-than-life persona. It will be more at home on small screens than in its theatrical release.

Conroy, predictably, is the doc's biggest asset. Not only was he there for the whole saga (other interviewees arrived later, or observed from back in London newsrooms), but he brings an image-maker's perspective to the storytelling. In his charismatic Liverpudlian accent, he recalls physical details that bring many pieces of the narrative to life.

Conroy also sums up the personal sense of mission that led him and Colvin, working partners for several years, to cross into Syria illegally when she was denied a visa for a reporting trip. (Her editor, Sean Ryan, recalls that one photographer she'd worked with previously thought Colvin was scarier than the war they were covering.) Neither of them cared to sit in a nearby city and relay details like the numbers of troops deployed to a region; they wanted to tell the stories of "the small people," civilians whose lives were being overturned by conflict.

The film fleshes out details of that doomed trip into Homs; it introduces Wa'el, the Syrian who became the pair's translator — and who, sensing their seriousness about telling his people's stories, refused payment for his services. It replays the last interview Colvin gave, a live call to Anderson Cooper's broadcast, and tells how they were all but forced to leave the city, only to go back in when a threatened military strike didn't materialize. And then Colvin was killed, in an attack that killed one other journalist and grievously wounded others, including Conroy.

After describing the public's response to Colvin's death (touchingly, Syrians demonstrated in public plazas to thank her for her work), Martin returns to footage of the surviving journalists as they became patients in the same makeshift hospital they reported in earlier.

From here on, it's probably best to let the doc tell the parts of its story that have been less publicized. Suffice to say there are twists, physical perils and moments of self-sacrifice. And finally, after oddly avoiding them for the most part, the doc closes with some of the still photos Conroy took during his work in Homs — haunting images personalizing a conflict that continues to cause misery the outside world can barely see.

Production company: Arrow Media
Distributor: Abramorama
Director-screenwriter: Chris Martin
Producer: Tom Brisley
Executive producers: Ben Anderson, Mary Burke, Mandy Chang, et al
Director of photography: Steve Organ
Editor: Dudley Sargeant
Composers: Glenn Gregory, Berenice Scott

Rared R, 99 minutes