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UNDER THE WIRE (2018) review

November 20, 2018

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written by: Chris Martin
produced by: Tom Brisley. Danny Gabai, Michael Kronish & Stephanie Mavropoulos
directed by: Chris Martin
rated: not rated
runtime: 95 min.
U.S. release date: November 16, 2018 (limited)

 

I decided to watch Chris Martin’s documentary “Under the Wire” before I caught the biographical drama “A Private War”, which is currently earning some buzz in select theaters. Both films were made to capture the work and death of American journalist and war correspondent Marie Colvin, notably her coverage of the Siege of Homs during the Syrian Civil War. But, while that film is a dramatic (somewhat fictionalized) depiction of who Marie Colvin was, “Under the Wire” is told from the perspective of her partner, British war photographer, Paul Conroy, who often accompanied her in war-torn locations and survived the blast from the Syrian army that killed his colleague on February 22, 2012. The harrowing and unsettling documentary prominately features Conroy as he recounts his time with Colvin and his ordeal on that fateful date.

Conroy and Colvin were determined to cover the plight of Syrian civilians trapped in Homs, many of whom were being attacked by the relentless Syrian army. Since the Syrian government were not giving out visas to foreign journalists, any reporting on Syrian soil would be illegal. Therefore, the stubborn and resilient pair found away to sneak their way in with some assistance and worked their way to a media center stationed in the Baba Amr, a western district of Homs. This is where Colvin, a correspondent for the Sunday Times since 1985, made her last broadcast on the evening of February 21st, when she appeared on BBC, CNN and ITN News via satellite phone. Speaking to Anderson Cooper, she described the bombardment of civilians on the streets of Hom by Syrian forces as “merciless” and the worst conflict she had ever experienced.

 

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With access to revealing and provocative footage that follows their brief time in Baba Amir, “Under the Wire” immerses viewers in a claustrophobic hell on earth. The sounds we hear either explosions or cries from the injured and frightened locals and journalists like Colvin trying to make sense of it all. Confusion and desperation is as apparent as the dust and debris that the camera spotlights. Much of what we’re shown takes place at night, understandably so considering Conroy and Colvin were trying to stay out of sight of the nearby bombers and the way in which the footage is used here feels as if we’re witnessing it all in real time, or at least as these journalists are experiencing it. How the film cuts back to Conroy’s haunting and riveting responses to what we’re shown is by far the strength of “Under the Wire”. What he lived through was indeed life-changing and how he describes crawling out of Syria (literally) is as intense as any thriller I’ve seen this year.

“Under the Wire” is based on the book of the same name that Conroy wrote and while this film revolves around “Marie Colvin’s Last Assignment” (the by-line of the book’s title), we learn as much about him as we do her, maybe more. Before working extensively as a journalist in various combat zones (the Balkans, the Middle East and Libya) for the British media, Conroy was a former soldier in the Royal Artillery in the 80s, which likely prepared him for such precarious and dangerous environments and situations.

While we learn about Conroy’s background, we’re also privy to Colvin’s past which allows us to get an understanding of her reputation. Her determination to be on location and provide a voice to the people – be they civilians, government officials or dictators – provided her with exclusive access that put her name on the map while giving a mouthpiece to those who would otherwise go unheard. She was also the first one to interview Muammar Gaddafi after the U.S. air strikes that bombed Tripoli in 1986 (under the guise of Operation El Dorado Canyon) where he shares how he was at home and had to help rescue his wife and children. She would interview Gaddafi again in 2001, taking along Christiane Amanpour of ABC News and Jeremy Bowen of BBC News. Surely, humanizing the libyan revolutionary and politician, someone who was painted by American media as a villain, was a controversial move, but what it confirms is how Colvin was always after the truth, regardless how it comes across. It becomes obvious how Colvin would become a target for many, especially those in power who communicate with violent oppression.

 

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We also get what feels like an obligatory explanation as to why Colvin wore an eyepatch over her left eye. It was due to a grenade blast by the Sri Lankan Army she was in close proximity to in April 2001. It’s an explanation that’s unnecessary, but it does reinforce her willingness to get a story, even to the point of risking her own life. We hear from Colvin’s editor, Lindsey Hilsum, who became concerned with Colvin’s approach and risky decisions, “She was completely full up with the horror of the situation and what she had seen,” she shares about Marie, “And I said, Marie, what is your exit strategy? And there was a pause. And she said, that’s just it. There isn’t one. And that was when I really, really began to worry.” Colvin’s steadfast determination could be viewed as obsession, especially when others around her are at risk.

Colvin wasn’t the only one who perished on February 22nd after their building was shelled by Syrian forces. French photojournalist Remi Ochlik was also killed and Conroy and French reporter Edith Bouvier (who is also featured in talking head segments) were among the gravely injured. We see footage of the immediate aftermath of the fatal bombing, where a disoriented Conroy notices the gaping hole in his leg and begins to ponder their evacuation options. His description of his eventual escape and the footage that accompanies it as as nerve-racking as the bombardment he endured.

One of the more heart-wrenching moments in “Under the Wire” takes place before Colvin was killed, an encounter that was included in her last written piece for the Sunday Times. It was when Conroy and Colvin discovered a basement in Homs that they would dub “the widow’s basement” because it was filled with a couple hundred women and children who had lost their men (fathers, husbands, sons or siblings) and were huddled down there with very little food or water. When they learned who Marie was, they implored her to tell their story and let the world know about their situation. An emotional Conroy reflects, “And Marie, she knew that she could take that story, and she could give the world a firsthand account of what was happening in Homs.”

Such an account speaks not just to Marie and Paul’s dedication, but more importantly how needed their occupation is, serving to remind viewers how needed such correspondence is despite the dangers involved.

The film mentions how French President Nicolas Sarkozy described the killing of Colvin and Ochlik as an assassination, stating that the journalists were clearly targeted once the Syrian army knew where they were located. Conroy would go on to describe the situation in Homs as less a Civil War and more of outright “slaughter”, comparing it to the destruction inflicted on Grozny during the Chechen Wars.

What director Chris Martin and editor Dudley Sergeant offers here is filmmaking that is just as important as the work Colvin and Conroy covered. Ultimately, it makes no difference whether you see “Under the Wire” before or after “A Private War”, it’s nevertheless an absolutely powerful and unforgettable viewing experience.

 

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RATING: ***

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