In an age when many people give huge credence to patently fake news, outrageous conspiracy theories, and social media memes purporting universal truths, what is the role of perhaps the last great stalwart of what H.L. Mencken once referred to as "the life of kings" - the investigative journalist? The Fourth Estate has taken a pounding in recent years, and one wonders what Edward R. Murrow would have made of it all, but one thing of which we can be certain is that he would have respected the hell out of Sunday Times war correspondent Marie Colvin, the ostensible subject of writer/director Chris Martin's excellent documentary. Based on the book of the same name by Colvin's photographer, nm9890337, who is also the primary interviewee in the film, the documentary covers the assignment on which Colvin was killed - the February 2012 military offensive during the Siege of Homs in Syria, and whilst thematically, the film is about both Colvin's indefatigable spirit and Conroy's deep respect for her, it's structured more like a thriller, complete with plot twists, heroism, sacrifice, and success against-the-odds.
Colvin was primarily concerned with presenting the stories of those usually forgotten in conflicts, arguing that "being a war correspondent is about what people are going through". Believing passionately that "journalism can make a difference", her career exemplified this belief. For example, in September 1999, Colvin was reporting on the East Timorese independence referendum. When the majority of voters chose independence from Indonesia, the pro-Indonesian militia began a wave of violence in the capital city, Dili. As journalists fled the country, tens of thousands of civilian refugees left the city. However, around 1,500 made their way to the UN compound. Colvin was urged to get out of harm's way, but refused, and, along with two Dutch reporters, Irene Slegt and Minka Nijhuis, headed instead to the compound. After four days of the trio shaming the Indonesian government in the international press, the journalists, the UN staff, and the 1,500 civilians were allowed to leave safely. Colvin was not someone who simply believed "journalism can make a difference", she was someone who made sure "journalism did make a difference."
Which brings us to Under the Wire. Having covered the Arab Spring in Libya, Colvin next headed to Syria. On February 3, 2012, in the city of Homs, the Syrian Army launched an offensive focused on the rebel stronghold of Baba Amr. With the Bashar al-Assad government attempting to control the influx of journalists into the country, Colvin and Conroy were refused travel visas, and so, on February 13, they illegally crossed the Syrian/Lebanon border, heading to Baba Amr. Once there, they soon learned that Assad's claim that no civilians were in harm's way was a lie - over 28,000 civilians were trapped in the district. Based out of a "media centre", Colvin, Conroy, TIME's William Daniels, and Le Figaro's Edith Bouvier, and her photographer Rémi Ochlik, immediately began to file copy, as the city was shelled incessantly around them. As the shelling became more intense, and with rumours spreading of a ground assault, the Sunday Times' editor, Sean Ryan, told Colvin and Conroy to get out of the area. They did so, but the next day, when the ground assault never happened, feeling they had abandoned the people in the district, they both returned. On the evening of February 21, Colvin was interviewed live by CNN's Anderson Cooper, whom she told the shelling was the worst she had ever experienced. The following morning, the media centre in which the reporters were based was shelled, with both Colvin and Ochlik killed, and Conroy and Bouvier seriously injured.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the film is that the above summary only takes us to just after the half-way point. With Colvin dead, the narrative shifts focus to Conroy, and the film basically turns into an escape thriller, as the wounded photographer seems to have little hope of making it out of the country alive (nor does the even more severely wounded Bouvier). Obviously both did, as they both give interviews in the film, but even though we know this, the fact that it doesn't dilute the heart-in-the-mouth experience of the second half of the narrative is a testament to Chris Martin's craft and storytelling ability.
For example, the film opens with a purposely disorientating shot that appears to be inside a tunnel of some kind. We later learn that it is the 3km storm drain which Colvin and Conroy used to get into Syria. However, what's especially well-thought-out about this opening is that that storm-drain proves vitally important towards the end too. This is basic narrative foreshadowing, but it's relatively unusual to see it in a documentary. Also vital to this thriller structuring is the time the documentary takes to explain the Syrian Arab Red Crescent incident. No spoilers, but this sequence is one of the best parts of the film, providing perhaps the biggest twist in the story, and highlighting how one can find heroes (and villains) in the most unexpected of places.
Under the Wire is not especially interested in contextualising the events it depicts, but that's because this isn't what the story is about; this is not an examination of the politics or morality of the Syrian Civil War. For example, although it explains that Homs was held by rebels, it never specifies who the rebels are or why they are fighting the government. Similarly, it never covers the theory, held by both the Sunday Times and the French government, that Colvin and Ochlik's deaths were in fact executions - that the media centre was shelled on purpose to silence the reporters stationed there; nor does it examine the fact that after their deaths, the Syrian government tried to claim the explosion which killed them was actually a rebel bomb.
At the same time, this isn't a standard bio-doc - we don't get all the beats from Colvin's life, why she became a journalist, famous stories she'd written etc. In that sense, this is a very different animal than something like Jim: The James Foley Story (2016), which focuses very much on Foley's bio. Having said that, however, the documentary does make sure to drive home how driven, and oftentimes difficult, Colvin could be (Conroy refers to her as "a one off" and Ryan says was "the most important war correspondent of her generation").
Obviously, as the author of the book on which the film is based, Conroy anchors proceedings. Indeed, there are only a few additional interviewees (Bouvier, Ryan, Daniels, their Syrian translator Wa'el, and Colvin's colleague and friend Lindsey Hilsum). Passionate, funny, and full of nervous ticks, Conroy's talking-head material contrasts well with the terrifying footage he himself shot in Syria, and raises significant questions regarding why Assad has been allowed to remain in power, whilst also forcing the audience to consider our own attitude to the Syrian refugee crisis (try watching an elderly man and woman hobble away from the ruins of the home they have lived in all their lives, their few remaining possessions strapped to their backs, and remain detached as to the plight of these people). Conroy is also deeply emotional regarding his experiences, and one of the most moving parts of the documentary is when he views footage of a mass protest in Homs on the evening of February 22, with the people carrying banners and flags emblazoned with pictures of Colvin and Ochlik, alongside the words "We will not forget you". Conroy was unaware this had happened at the time, and had never seen footage of it before filming his interview. It's simply impossible not to be deeply moved by his reaction to the footage.
And that, in a nutshell, is why this is such a strong piece of work. Equal parts emotive, stimulating, anger-inducing, and thrilling, it's a story of bravery and professional dedication in the face of unimaginable horrors, of determined humanitarianism, and absolutely impossible-to-deter dedication to giving a voice to those who so often remain voiceless.