Film Review: A PRIVATE WAR (USA 2018)

A Private War Poster

One of the most celebrated war correspondents of our time, Marie Colvin is an utterly fearless and rebellious spirit, driven to the frontline of conflicts across the globe to give voice to the voiceless.


Matthew Heineman


Marie Brenner (based on the Vanity Fair article “Marie Colvin’s Private War” by), Arash Amel

A Private War has been described as an American biographical drama film though director Matthew Heineman has made it clear that he did not intend the film to be a run-of-the-mill biography.  This is obvious once the film starts kicking into gear as it becomes clear exactly where the film is heading.  Heineman praises his subject, British journalist, Marie Colvin (an admirable performance by Rosamund Pike despite the film’s flaws) to no end – a martyr for the course of war journalism.  The film is based on the 2012 article “Marie Colvin’s Private War” in Vanity Fair by Marie Brenner and written for the film by Arash Amel.

Heineman’s film begins with Marie Colvin in a war zone doing her job covering the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka.  When the film whisks Colman from one war zone to another, ending in HOMS in Syria, it is clear that the film is not really interested in telling the stories of the casualties of war – nor of the sufferings of the people; nor of the lies told by Governments nor of the fact that world needs to be told of what is going on and to be aware (as Colvin, herself says her goal in journalism is).  It is to tell of the heroism of one Marie Colvin – but without the warts at all.

At the film’s worst, Colvin is seen in the battlefield with perfect hair with nicely groomed curls down her sides.  The fact must have been pretty obvious as most of her other war scenes has her hair tied in a bundle.

The film contains no shortage of subtleties.  When Colvin receives the Foreign Correspondent of the year Award, the film quickly moves away from the scene and omits her acceptance speech.  Yes, the audience gets the point the she is not in the business for the fame.  A PRIVATE WAR is all abut Colvin’s conviction in telling stories in dangerous scenarios.  The other fact is her Sunday Times boss, Sean Ryan played by Tom Hollander is always seen in a suit and tie, another indication that the director needs to keep reminding the audience that Colvin is doing a dangerous job in the field while he is having it ‘cushy nice’ in the office.  “I want to tell their stories,” Colvin says at one point in the film.  Heineman isn’t interested in telling ‘their’ stories at all but only her story.  So unsure that his audience will not get the film’s point, the point  has to be said out loud to Colvin in the dialogue:  “If you lose your conviction, what hope do we have?”

The best film about journalism, and one that demands to be seen is Phillip Noyce’s NEWSFRONT, also arguably one of the best Australian films ever made.  Bill Hunter plays a newsreel man in the 60’s in a film that exhorts its heroes in the news without resorting to glamorization and overblown set pieces.  The one shot in NEWSFRONT of a drowned cameraman in a flood he was covering is enough to say it all.  A PRIVATE WAR, in contrast drums the fact into the audience to no end.  Even Colvin’s PTSD (Post Trauma Stress Disorder) is downplayed.  With the scene of her having a bath together with her wealthy lover played by Stanley Tucci, the film has reached its ridiculous limit.

But there is a reward in staying for the closing credits.  Annie Lennox delvers a beautiful rendition of the song “Requiem for a PrivateWar”.


Film Review: BEIRUT (USA 2017) ***

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Beirut Poster
Caught in the crossfires of civil war, CIA operatives must send a former U.S. diplomat to negotiate for the life of a friend he left behind.


Brad Anderson


Tony Gilroy


Set in the 1980s during the Lebanese Civil War, BEIRUT is a fictional action film centring on a former U.S. diplomat who returns to service in the city of Beirut in order to save a colleague who is held hostage by the group responsible for the death of his family.

Unlike films dealing with hostage situations like 7 DAYS IN ENTEBBE and ARGO, BEIRUT deals with the next best thing.  It is a fictional story based on a true event – the hostage taking during the Olympics in Munich.   While the lead is no super spy like James Bond, he is the next best thing, a diplomat that has revenge on his agenda, as in the Liam Neeson TAKEN films.  BEIRUT benefits from a script by Tony Gilroy who penned the BOURNE films and more important, also directed one BOURNE film and the excellent MICHAEL CLAYTON.  There are shades of MICHAEL CLAYTON in BEIRUT with the main character similar to the George Clooney character and a strong supporting female character here played by Rosamund Pike.  

The film opens in 1972 at a posh party thrown by  Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm), a U.S. diplomat living it up in Beirut with his wife Nadia (Leila Bekhti).   They have no children of their own, and so they adopt and treat 13-year-old orphan refugee Karim (Yoav Sadian Rosenberg) as family.  Karim serves hors d’oeuvres.  During a posh cocktail party, however, uninvited guests bring unwelcome news: Not quite so alone in the world as he’d pretended, little Karim has an older brother.  Things never go as well as planned – especially not in movies.  Mason is then informed that Karim is the brother of Abu Rajal (Hicham Ouraqa), a notorious Palestinian terrorist linked to the recent Summer Olympics massacre in Munich as well as other attacks.  Just as Mason is about to say, “I don’t believe it,” the party is stormed by gunmen under the orders of Rajal attempting to spring Karim.

To cut a long story short, Mason is sent home, takes to the drink but later asked to return to Beirut,  There he learns, that his friend Cal of the CIA (Mark Pellegrino) is held hostage by the now grown Karim.  Karim wants his brother Abu Rajal freed.

Despite the long story, it is an interesting one and one that allows a mild mannered man to resume his glory days and save the day or in this case, his best friend Cal.  The subplot between Mason an cultural attache Sandy Crowder (Pike) makes a good diversion.  The film feels like a mix between MICHAEL CLAYTON and the BOUNRE movies.  Morocco, where the film is shot stands for war-torn Beirut.

Unlike most action films where the heroes spurt out funny one-liners, the dialogue here is more subtle and at times a bit cynical, which suits the mood of the film.  Hamm makes a good reluctant hero.  

The film has had complaints of being racist.  The film’s trailer ended with voice-over from Mr. Hamm’s character: “2,000 years of revenge, vendetta, murder. Welcome to Beirut.”  It does not help too that Beirut looks nothing like the real Beirut since the film was shot in Morocco.


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Film Review: 7 DAYS IN ENTEBBE (UK/USA 2017)

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7 Days in Entebbe Poster

Inspired by the true events of the 1976 hijacking of an Air France flight en route from Tel Aviv to Paris, and the most daring rescue mission ever attempted.


José Padilha


Gregory Burke (screenplay by)


There has already been 2 television movies (released theatrically outside the U.S.) on the 1976 rescue/hijack event, VICTORY IN ENTEBBE and RAID ON ENTEBBE  including the  documentary OPERATION THUNDERBOLT.  I have not seen the doc but the two made for television movies were quite bad.  So, is this new 2017 version the definitive Entebbe film?  (Note that the closing credits list the film as a 2017 production though there is a statement on screen stating that there is presently no peace alliance between Israel and Palestine with the date, March 2018 flashed on the screen.  The only explanation is that the statement was put into the film in 2017 and not in March of 2018.)

Who else then to direct the Entebbe raid true story than Brazilian director, José Padilha who helmed the excellent documentary BUS 174 way back about the hijacked bus in Rio de Janeiro?  But despite the impressive cast and crew, 7 DAYS IN ENTEBBE that unfolds from Day 1 (June 25th,1976) to Day 7 is incredibly boring.

The film is based on the real life rescue of the hijacked Air France passengers in Uganda by Israeli forces.  The plane was hijacked from its Athens, Greece departure by a group of 4, 2 Germans, Brigitee Kuhlmann (Rosamund Pike) and Wilfred Bose (Daniel Bruhl) and 2 Palestinians.  Instead of centring on the actual raid and heroics, the script by Gregory Burke focuses on the conflict between Israel and Palestine.  The film itself begins with a reminder of the fact that an Israeli state was formed in 1947 and fighting between Palestine and Israel has been going on ever since – the fighters for liberating the land back to Palestine known to the Palestinians as Freedom Fighters but as terrorists to the Israelis.  The film contains a lot of talk behind the scenes of the planning, between Minister of Defence, Shimon Peres (the always excellent Eddie Marsan in extreme makeup) and Israel Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (Lior Ashkenazi).  There is also a debate on the insufficient funds in the defence budget.  One of the soldiers has a girlfriend in dance.  He is advised by a fellow soldier to have her join the army or be forever apart.  This explains the dance scenes in the film.

The dance sequences appear at length not only at the start and end of the film, but interspersed at other points during the film.  Besides the soldier’s girlfriend being in dance, what are the dance sequences really doing in a supposedly action film?  The dance metaphor, if there is one, surely escapes me.  Anyway, too much time is wasted watching the dancers in tights prancing around on stage.  The dance sequences go right into the closing credits.

Acting is surprisingly good with a jolt of hilarity provided by Nonso Anozie in the role of Dictator Idi Amin.  Bruhl and Marsan also stand out.

The individual film scenes are well directed by Padilha.  But the problem is that they all do not come together as a whole or for the right purpose.  A film that stresses the needed peace agreement between Israel and Palestine should not be one that centres on heroic Israeli forces rescuing a hijacked plane.


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Film Review: HOSTILES (USA 2017) ***1/2

In 1892, a legendary Army captain reluctantly agrees to escort a Cheyenne chief and his family through dangerous territory.


Scott Cooper


Scott Cooper (screenplay), Donald E. Stewart (manuscript)

HOSTILES opens with a statement by D.H. Lawrence on how hostile the west was – and how the heat of the west can never be melted.  Scott Cooper’s (BLACK MASS) film attempts to prove otherwise in his brooding western, interspersed with action sequences that are enough to jolt any audience from thought.

The setting is 1892.  The film opens with a tense and well executed sequence of the massacre of the Quaid family by Indians, the only survivor being the widow (Rosamund Pike).  Director Cooper makes sure the audience feels for her, and for her hatred towards the Indians.  

The film then introduces its main character, an embittered and battle-hardened US Cavalry officer, Joseph L. Blocker (Christian Bale) ordered to accompany a Cheyenne war chief and his family back to their tribal lands in Montana.  Captain Blocker (Christian Bale) has seen more than his fair share of violence and bloodletting on the frontier and will obviously see more by the end of the film, but this mission, which he is forced to accept, is a particularly bitter pill to swallow: Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) has been his mortal enemy for years due to a conflict that killed many of Blocker’s friends.  On the other hand, the Chief has also lost friends in the conflict.  To make matters worse, the widow, Rosalie Quaid joins in the journey.

Blocker is a racist, a man who harbours a deep hatred towards the former prisoners now placed in his care.  As the challenges mount, Blocker is forced to confront his own bigotry while carrying out his orders.  But there are no long monologues or cheap theatrics to get the message across.

But in the final scene, Blocker says goodbye to Rosalie at the train station, her hand holding the young orphaned  Cheyenne boy.  “You are a good man, Joe Blocker.”   These are Rosalie’s farewell words to Blocker.  These are unexpected words resulting in events that show that reconciliation is possible, despite how hopeless things appeared at the start.

Christian Bale is almost perfect in the title role of the racist with a conscience.  It is not a cardboard character but one that undergoes development.  Bale does a lot of brooding, but the changes in him come from the vents that flow his journey through the hostile land.  Pike is also good as the storm-willed suicidal widow.  Adam Beach (SUICIDE SQUAD) is surprisingly not given much to do while Wes Studi (DANCES WITH WOLVES, LAST OF THE MOHICANS) has a few lines that emphasize his strong character as the Indian chief.  Ben Foster is sufficiently menacing as an escorted criminal.

Coopers action scenes are well orchestrated and lift the otherwise slow moving film that at times almost sinks too low.  The film is quite lengthy, running at over the 2 hour mark.

HOSTILES is a quietly powerful film, difficult to watch but nevertheless gets its message across with the hopeful ending.


Film Review: A UNITED KINGDOM (UK 2016) ***1/2

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a_united_kingdom.jpgDirector: Amma Asante
Writer: Guy Hibbert (screenplay)
Stars: David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Jack Davenport

Review by Gilbert Seah

Director Amma Asante follows up her successful British period piece BELLE with another of the same, but this time pitting Britain against Africa.

A UNITED KINDOM begins humbly as a love story between two young lovers who first meet in 1947 in a jazz club. The trouble is that one is coloured and the other white. The coloured one happens to be a prince, first in line to the throne of Bechuanaland (today’s Botswana). He keeps this from her and so does director Asante of the film’s main plot. This is the biopic of Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), the former African royal who courted controversy with his interracial marriage to Englishwoman Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) and later led his nation to independence from the British Empire as the first president of Botswana.
One trouble about scripts of period films is that the writers often forget that certain words or common phrases were never used in the past. An example is the word mother f***er, which cannot be used say, in a film set in the 70’s. In the case of Guy Hibbert’s script, an address in Parliament had the speaker use the phrase, ‘most importantly’ a term which was never used before the year 2000.

The 50’s atmosphere of Victorian London and the village atmosphere of African Bechuanaland are both beautifully created and shot by cinematography Sam McCurdy. London is often shot in grey while Bechuanaland in bright colours. There are also gorgeous shots of galloping giraffes and deer on the Botswana plains as seen from an airplane.

At one point in the film, I was wondering (and I am sure many in the audience would as well) what is so special about Khama, the prince – why is he so needed and what he can do to provide his people with a better life. The answer to this question is revealed – to Hibbert’s credit in Khama’s well-written and delivered crowd rousing speech the reason he should remain in line to the throne and how his vision is for Bechuanaland is to be the first to end black/white segregation in Africa.

The film is aided by the impressive performances of its two leads David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike, bringing to life one of the great forbidden romances of the 20th century. Oyelowo has proven his acting mettle as Martin Luther King Jr. in SELMA and in A UNITED KINGDOM, he delivers a royal performance fit for a King.

Director Asant and scriptwriter Hibbert are careful in building up the film’s momentum. The film also rallies the audience’s anger at Britain’s injustice done against them both and against Bechuanaland. Though the film is clearly anti-British, the anti-British feel is lightened by the fact that the British public eventually supported Khama.

A UNITED KINGDOM ends up a satisfying biopic turned political drama. A more ambitious project for director Asante than BELLE, this film proves her successful and ready for another super period film.



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