In February 2012, Sunday Times war correspondent Marie Colvin and photographer Paul Conroy were on assignment to cover the Syrian civil war. Being denied the necessary visa to enter the country, they decided to enter Syria illegally and made their way to the Baba Amr district, more precisely to the city of Homs. With the Bashar al-Assad regime claiming no civilians were in harm’s way, they found the exact opposite on arrival: nearly 30,000 civilians were trapped in the rebel stronghold, their existence an obvious thorn in the regime’s side.
Based on Paul Conroy’s book, director Chris Martin superbly directs a bio-documentary that follows the decorated journalist Colvin and ex-soldier Conroy – who serves as the primary interviewee – on what should become Colvin’s last assignment. “My job is to bear witness. I have never been interested in knowing what make of plane had just bombed a village or whether the artillery that fired at it was 120mm or 155mm.” Working along this mantra, she has covered conflicts from Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Chechnya, Libya, East Timor and the Sri Lankan Civil War. After being injured in 2001 and left with one eye, she started wearing an eye-patch which quickly became her trademark.
The journalists started to work immediately, out of a makeshift ‘media centre’ in Homs, alongside French photographer William Daniels, Le Figaro’s Edith Bouvier and her photographer Rémi Ochlik – amidst a “merciless” shelling offensive the Syrian army launched on the city. After the rumours of an approaching ground attack, Sunday Times editor Sean Ryan asked Colvin and Conroy to leave the area, which they did. Soon after realising that attack never happened they decided to return. On the evening of February 21st, Colvin was interviewed on CNN stating the shelling was the worst she had ever experienced. The morning after marked the day the media centre was hit, leaving Conroy and Bouvier seriously injured and Colvin and Ochlik dead.
“Paying tribute to the late journalist […] Martin brings across her unbreakable spirit and often difficult personality perfectly…”
This marks a turning point approximately half-way through the documentary – the focus switches from Colvin to Conroy, who is left in the embattled city with a time window for escape that keeps getting smaller by the minute, taking the little hope there is of leaving Homs alive. UNDER THE WIRE also features journalists Edith Bouvier and William Daniel and their Syrian translator Wa’el, who all made it out alive, and Colvin’s colleague and friend as additional interviewees alongside Paul Conroy. His interview sequences are deeply emotional, especially after being confronted with footage of a mass protest held in memory of the killed Colvin and Ochlik in Homs, but also touching on important questions such as why Assad is able to still be in power.
Paying tribute to the late journalist and her incredible legacy without going into much detail about her personal or professional life, Martin brings across her unbreakable spirit and often difficult personality perfectly – a “one-off” as Convoy describes her, or according to Ryan’s words “the most important war correspondent of her generation”. The documentary doesn’t ask questions about the rebels, or the fighting, or the theory that it has been a coordinated assassination. It solely focuses on snap-shots of those particular days during the Siege of Homs in a thriller-like way – including heroes, a very unexpected plot-twist and the nightmarish feeling of running out of time. It is a masterpiece of story-telling.
In a time where vast amounts of people believe in fake news, European politics shifting to the right, and shocking pictures of people desperately trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea hoping for a better life, this documentary is not only a brutal eye-opener but poignant, important and educational. UNDER THE WIRE forces you to rethink values and opinions, and serves as a great memento that both quality journalism and humanism are not nice things to have, but powerful necessities.