By: Jonathan Levin  | 

Arts & Culture: A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words: “Civil War” Shows a Broken America Through a Camera Lens

In Alex Garland’s “Civil War,” the United States stands divided. Texas and California lead the Western Forces and are allied with a group of states forming the Florida Alliance, aiming to storm Washington and overthrow the U.S. government. Battle lines aren’t static nor clearly marked. Suicide bombers plague New York, the highways leading past Newark are a highway of death and destroyed cars, soldiers shoot at each other in intense urban fighting and $300 can buy your choice of a cheese or ham sandwich. 

“Civil War” is not a movie about how this war unfolded or even why people are fighting. The war itself serves as a plot device to get to Garland’s main goals, done through the lens of a group of photojournalists covering the war. Through following the journalists’ journeys, Garland examines the effects that the ravages of war have on ordinary individuals and uses his film as a social commentary on our society’s and media's sensationalist approach towards viewing and documenting destruction and slaughter.

The plot follows these photojournalists and their journeys. Kirsten Dunst plays Lee, a veteran war correspondent, who is protective of Jessie, a 23-year-old woman played by Cailey Spaeny, who has long viewed Lee as a role model and wants to emulate her career in photojournalism. For her part, Lee sees Jessie as an embodiment of her younger self, and Garland does an incredible job of allowing their shared experiences during the war to mold their characters into mirror images of each other by the end of the film. The other central characters include Joel, played by Wagner Mour, whose pursuit of written journalism is more glossed over but whose quest for a quote from the president ends as the single most powerful moment in the movie, and Sammy, an aging reporter of the “what's left of the New York Times,” played by Stephen McKinley Henderson, the only character that can see the wider picture in a world that lacks it.

Many movies portray the horrors of war, but Garland focuses on what war does to the individual, making the perpetrators and bystanders question themselves, and thus successfully implicating the audience. Garland’s choice of creating a heavy fog of war contributes to this, and the characters’ persistent lack of knowledge of who is fighting whom and the lack of identifying marks on uniforms removes the focus from the flag on a soldier’s shoulder, allowing Garland to avoid a collective “team A” versus “team B” mentality in audiences and portraying each soldier as an individual, not as another cog in a military machine.

Garland’s choice of making the film about photojournalists showcases the power that pictures have over mere words. Each click of the camera, each still shot of a bullet striking someone, is intentional, allowing Garland to slow down the world and focus on the individuals moving on screen. Each frame, frozen in time, enables the viewer to see the people they see as more than just a moving image, even if, as in the case of gun-downed hooded prisoners of war, their faces are never visible. The presence of photojournalists and their cameras in the film also forces other characters they interact with to reevaluate themselves. Lee’s request for a man to pose for a photo of two men he has been hanging and torturing for looting visibly flusters the man and makes him uncomfortable, causing him to realize, likely for the first time, how other people probably view him.

But just as Garland uses the camera to turn the people we see into individuals, capturing moments from the uninterrupted video we see, he also uses it to show that the media, through the power of the camera, has the ability to erase individuality. A conversation between Lee and Jessie about whether they would photograph the other being struck by a bullet is a question as to the value of the other person’s humanity in a digital world, as is Lee’s deletion of a photo showing a close friend’s corpse, keeping her friend’s dignity alive. Garland also breaks the fourth wall to use the final shot of the movie to directly involve the audience, with soldiers, standing near a person they just murdered, staring directly at the screen, implicitly implicating the audience in their act, one meant to give the audience pause. Although many might miss this, as the scene immediately preceding this is very powerful, Garland is just extending a technique he used on the journalists multiple times in the movie, forcing bystanders and observers to grapple with their obligations to intervene when witnessing others suffer.

As in real war, the fog of war is thick in “Civil War,” and Garland paints a complicated portrait of the moral conduct of both sides. Both sides commit war crimes and atrocities, purposefully making the audience wonder which side has the just cause, and at one point, a sniper laughs away a question asking which side he is on, saying he and his unknown opponent are just locked in a game of survival, trying to kill each other first. Garland makes the audience grapple with our common humanity, one shared by all people, and in particular, the people depicted in the film. As previously noted, the lack of identification on uniforms and the near-absence of politics makes Garland’s job easier, preventing the audience from choosing a side to root for.

Although “Civil War” avoids many political issues in the present day (can you see California allying with Texas and Florida?), Garland does make use of a few scenes to force the audience to grapple with current issues of racism, nationalism and identity politics. In a particularly poignant scene, the only scene that clearly is meant to strike a chord with our hyper-polarized society, a gun-toting soldier with a frighteningly cavalier attitude, played by Jesse Plemons, stands near a truck and mass grave filled with dead bodies and asks the group, “What kind of American are you?”

Though “Civil War” is filled with scenes of death, all of it appears to be intentional to aid in Garland’s character development and to impart his messages about war. Garland makes excellent use of cinematography to tell his story, with a scene of a character crawling over dead bodies in a mass grave serving as the moment a character’s emotions die internally, allowing him to make fundamental changes to that character. Garland does not aim to show gore for gore’s sake, often subtly implicating the media’s fascination with death and Hollywood’s fetishization of death. And although Garland means for “Civil War” to function as a social commentary on warfare, he purposely avoids some of the more shocking aspects of war. There are no dead children in this movie, and Garland entirely excludes the horrors of sexual violence often inflicted on civilians in war, likely to make it easier for him to share the intellectual messages he wishes to impart onto audiences.

Garland’s choice to make all military and civilian equipment circa 2024, despite the setting taking place seemingly decades in the future (an assessment based on references to fictional events such as an “Antifa Massacre”), is intentional as well, cutting costs, avoiding the need for imagination and making the setting seem more contemporary and consequently, more real for audiences. Nevertheless, a few details seemed incongruent with reality and seemed as if Garland cut corners without a clear reason other than familiarity. Why aren’t politicians in D.C. making use of underground tunnels and command centers? Why are Secret Service agents dressed in suits and ties when they know they will be in an active war zone? However, these are small details and didn’t distract from Garland completing his main objectives or my enjoyment of the movie.

I left the theater profoundly disturbed by “Civil War,” left grappling with the ideas and themes Garland brought up. My older sisters and I, who watched the movie together, got lost in conversation about the film and the themes it brought up, including the previously mentioned themes and our individual experiences working in journalism, foreign policy and with veterans scarred by war, all contemporary issues the movie relates to.

I normally avoid R-rated movies — my first in theaters — but I’d highly recommend it to anyone and think it's an important watch. That being said, it is important to note that the trailer tells a different story than the movie and if you elect to watch it, don’t make the mistake of allowing preconceived political notions to muddle a work purposefully absent from it. Approaching Garland’s work with a political attitude will give you a different understanding of the movie, one, though seen in many reviews, does not seem to conform with Garland’s intentions. Except for the “what kind of American are you?” scene and a few other scattered moments, this isn’t a commentary on America today nor our division, though a hopelessly fictional civil war serves as a backdrop. Rather than that, it is a movie of the individual in war, a commentary on the media covering war and violence, our responsibilities as observers, bystanders, and participants and the resonance of a person’s humanity in worlds where it is unvalued. While many movies depict the horrors of war, Garland does something different by focusing on the shared human experience of everyone in war through the lens of photojournalists (written and broadcast journalists receive only a nod), as well as his focus on implicating the audience in a war that feels real and hits home.

“Civil War,” released by A24, is currently in theaters and is rated R for “strong violent content, bloody/disturbing images, and language throughout.” 119 minutes running time. Five out of five stars.


Photo Caption: Movie poster for Civil War

Photo Credit: A24