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Alex Garland's Civil War: Cameras as Weapons of War

A woman in press gear sits against a cement wall as POWs get marched by with bags on their heads
Cailee Spaeny as JESSIE in CIVIL WAR

There's no such thing as an objective photojournalist. They present the guise of objectivity by presenting the facts in front of them, but they choose where to point the camera lens.

In 2020, Theo Anthony released a movie called ALL LIGHT, EVERYWHERE which chronicles the history of cameras and surveillance. Anthony claims that cameras have always been weaponized, citing examples like carrier pigeons in World War I and the body cameras police wear that supposedly tell the truth. Yet that truth comes from the policeman's perspective, facing off with a suspect.

In 1960, Martin Luther King, Jr. took careful steps to create an incendiary confluence of events that would draw the attention of the press and its photographers. He knew the pictures taken could turn the tide of public opinion towards the Black community demanding the right to vote and enter desegregated spaces.

And in Alex Garland's nightmarish dystopian war movie, CIVIL WAR, a military personnel played by Jesse Plemons understands that this band of "objective press" could undermine his nation-state, depending on their loyalties. Plemons holds an assault rifle, they hold cameras, and both are weapons of war.

A woman with a camera in a foggy room
Kirsten Dunst as LEE in CIVIL WAR
The worst has happened – America is once again divided by a civil war. Don't expect a political position from director-writer Garland. California and Texas unite as the Western Forces (WF). Florida rallies the Southeastern states to form the Florida Alliance. And then there are Loyalists and the New People's Army. Garland offers no details on how the world came to be and what political positions these groups represent. A soldier played by Jin Ha later asks Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), "You know who's in that building?" Answer from Jessie: "Someone who is shooting." Yes that's what they know, and what we know.

Lee's (Kirsten Dunst) career took off when she took a now legendary photo during an Antifa Rally and now risks any danger to take pictures of the stories that will make headlines. Her trusted companion is Joel (Wagner Moura), a rakish but loyal handler whose job seems to be moving Lee from point A to point B in case she gets discombobulated. As Lee, and later Jessie, enters an active war zone, they don protective gear and helmets, with Joel latched on to their backpack strap, sticking closer than a mother. This keeps them alive. In this world, the press operate as a protected class; as long as they wear their "press" gear, they are safe from intentional threats to their safety. If they die, it's accidental.

Lee, Joel, and Lee's mentor, Sammy (Stephen McKinely Henderson), decide to go behind enemy lines to do the impossible: interview the current PUSA (Nick Offerman), who is holed up in the White House. This mission means almost certain death, but this crew have been doing this so long they feel an almost addictive need for the rush of gunfire. Against Lee's wishes, Joel invites young Jessie along, a girl who wants to be just like Lee. The four journey by van across the war-torn wasteland, encountering a mish mash of allies, enemies, and everything in between.

A man wearing a press hat stands behind a phogorapher
Wagner Moura as JOEL in CIVIL WAR
The movie brings to mind previous dystopian road movies, such as CHILDREN OF MEN and THE BOOK OF ELI -- movies that aren't about good and moral people, but people who have learned to survive by putting on a mask. For Lee and Joel, that mask is a camera or a journalistic pad -- a buffer between the brutality in front of them. That mask allows them to enter spaces where most don't dare to go, as long as they only take pictures and don't interfere. They aspire to be perfect witnesses, documenting the evidence. The people who see the photos will create the meaning. They are photographers, not soldiers, but nonetheless, still impacted by PTSD in its various manifestations. Joel claims the sound of gunfire gives him a sexual charge, and he seems to get a high off the violence. On the other hand, Lee walks about with no emotional affect.

In one especially gruesome scene, the group has stopped for gas in an unfriendly town run by some form of vigilante justice. Jessie goes nosing about and finds two bloodied soldiers hanging from the rafters of a barn. They are still alive. Jessie is horrified and unable to speak; Lee just asks the citizen if she can take a photo of him between the two men. We might think that she's truly unaffected by physical suffering, if not for an early scene when we witness her sitting in a bathtub, experiencing flashbacks of horrible savagery she's seen one human inflict upon another. Her work takes a toll; stoicism is part of her mask.

CIVIL WAR has an inspired sound design, which subverts expectations against almost every war movie I've ever seen. The movie pairs some of the most intense scenes with a soundtrack of utter silence, heightening the terror of the moment. But there's plenty of pulse-pounding and immersive explosions, too. Ben Barker and his team of sound wizards craft a technically perfect audio experience. Cinematographer Rob Hardy also impresses with a tapestry of images that sear into the brain. As fitting a movie about getting the perfect shot, Hardy shows a knack for the art. All technical dimensions of CIVIL WAR work together as a well-oiled machine. The battle skirmishes with bullets flying, voices shouting, and soldiers and journalists moving as one are glorious to behold on a Dolby or IMAX screen.  

Cars piled up on a highway in an apocalyptic wasteland
A still from CIVIL WAR

Most of the cast deliver memorable performances. Dunst has been at the acting game for 30 years, and knows exactly what she's doing. Moura is charming and charismatic. Henderson has aged like fine wine. Spaeny didn't work in this role. She reminds me a little of how awkward Kristen Stewart used to come across when playing romantic leads in paranormal romances. "She has no facial expression," the world used to decry. Turns out Stewart's a brilliant actress, but only in roles that suit her nuance. In his review of her performance in EQUALS, Matt Zoller Seitz said, "She's (Stewart) a very subtle actress who excels at roles that keep the audience at some remove, suggesting a character's interior state with measured gestures and expressions." I suggest that Spaeny is the same. That's why PRISICILLA worked so well for Spaeny. Here she comes across as wooden, which doesn't work for someone supposedly aspiring to greatness. I don't believe for one moment that someone as timid as Spaeny would be rash enough to go into the heart of darkness. She needed to be giving ALL ABOUT EVE Anne Baxter energy -- enthusiastic and naive. She says a line in the middle, "I've never felt more scared or more alive," all without blinking. Darling, you look like a dead fish. She did have one good scene with Dunst in a dress shop. That's the only good thing I can say.

Viewers that go into CIVIL WAR wanting to see a cause they can root for or their beliefs about this country affirmed will leave disappointed. We don't get the luxury of being able to align with a side. Like our merry band of photographers, Garland just presents the story with no background and forces us to interpret the truth ourselves. Who, if anyone, did we meet that was admirable? Who navigated the world the way we would aspire to? Our country is as divided as it has ever been. But often we don't stop to really discern the truth. Instead we align ourselves with a side, and call the other side the enemy, refusing to see the humanity of the other person. We are like the soldier played by Jin Ha. Joel is incredulous that Jin Ha doesn't know who he is shooting at or why. He just knows someone is shooting. "Someone is trying to kill us. We are trying to kill them." It would have been so easy for Alex Garland to infuse the film with his own political views, but that's not how you tell a story or make a point.

You have to show people what you want them to see and let them come to their own conclusions. Dr. King knew it. Good journalists know it.

Release info: In theaters April 12, 2024
Final score: 4.5 out of 5