Civil War

The burden of duty - 6.5/10

by Jad Sammour

Watched on April 25, 2024

Civil War works well as a thriller about a group of journalists crossing from New York to Washington DC across a civil war-torn America. Being with the main cast of characters on their journey is a thrill ride with many intense sequences, genuine moments of (and loss of) humanity in inhumane situations, and an existential exploration of journalists and their duty. This is the film’s strongest suit and the most solid part of the film. But you may ask “isn’t this the entire film?” Well, it isn’t. This is a highly volatile and charged time in America’s history and Alex Garland decides to make a film about a Civil War in America - a somewhat probable scenario - yet does not engage with it politically in any way whatsoever - yes it has an anti-war stance which is political but it does not relate it to current-time America. Now this isn’t a “flaw” per se, but the historical context within which the film exists makes you a little bit endlessly edged and frustrated for not getting any context as to why the civil war started. It’s just frustrating but one should resist this and look beyond this lack and see what the film gives us, as viewers, because this distancing from politics isolates political engagement and helps you focus on the core themes of the story.  The film’s stance feels like an almost enlightened “war is bad, it is terrible, it turns people against each other, innocents die, pillaging and senseless murder ensues, soldiers lose their purpose and remain programmed like robots fighting for the sake of fighting for survival, eventually it doesn’t matter why there’s a war”. And this is good in a way, though it is a Centrist stance that hides political, social, and class struggle behind it that the film totally ignores. I will shut up about the lack of politics and focus on what the film gives us instead.

The central cast of characters is Lee (Kirsten Dunst) - a war photographer - Joel (Wagner Moira) - a journalist - and the great Stephen McKinley Henderson who plays Sammy, a veteran journalist. The three are joined by aspiring photographer Jessie played by Cailee Spaeny. The three have a certain discrete family dynamic where Lee and Joel function as a couple joined by a father-in-law and their daughter on a roadtrip in war-torn America. The core of the film boils down to the job and risks (physical + psychological) of journalists. You see a sacrificial indifference in their duty to photographing and reporting while giving us hints at their coping mechanisms in the wake of traumatic situations they’ve been in, highly accentuated by flashbacks and center-sharpness lenses - which distort the image and keeps the center, the actor’s face, sharp and in focus to accentuate their panic and isolation. Furthermore, the narrative pushes their coping mechanisms and reposes to the brink once bad things happen to them and you see the limit of human distancing i.e. if it is not happening to you or someone you love you may be able to turn a blind eye but once it happens to someone close to you, these defenses and this sense of indifference and focus on duty disintegrate  - this is illustrated really well at the end of act two.

Civil War is about a bunch of journalists who have to shed their humanity and struggle with this burden to fulfill their duty to photographically and narratively register the war… but at what cost? Why? How? Beyond and within the journey, the film asks interesting questions about journalism as a profession. Sure it’s risky, but Civil War unravels if its worth it do this job, you start wondering if they should be there in the first place, and not necessarily in a empathetic way but in a “are they idiots? Are they doing it for the public’s right to know? For their glory? Is this selfless or selfish?” But it also does not ignore the importance and necessity of this work. Even further, I loved how also the journalists’ attitude becomes somewhat similar to soldiers who are rarely seen fighting over ideological differences but for the sheer will to survive. In a scene that creates good conditions to discuss the war, a solider replies as to why he’s shooting that he’s shooting back because someone is shooting at him. This war is almost ran by robotic directives more than reason, the same way these journalists’ logic functions - getting there first to get the scoop, being there for the photo, doesn’t matter why or how.  There’s a sequence where I was a bit angry at the characters for not doing anything but you’re reminded that they’re helpless civilians armed with camera equipment, only. They’re powerless, yet in a position to do something, though can’t do anything, it’s frustrating and gets under your skin. They’re indifferent witnesses who are just there to document. Their work feels like a turning of their blind eye while simultaneously looking dead-on at the atrocities of war. The ending is great and works to a great effect in concluding the film’s ideas.

At some point in the film, Lee questions her work and impact by saying, and I paraphrase, “I was taking these images [of war in third world countries] and sending them back the America so what’s happening out there wouldn’t happen to Americans” as a double commentary on racist desensitization against violence seen from the West, and Garland doing a classic switcheroo “putting them in their shoes; it’s happening to you now” and we see war inside America, in the streets, American against American - though the film lacks more substance there as we don’t see anything truly truly brutal that measures to the atrocities we see in third world countries depicted in the film and in our knowledge as viewers outside the film. But don’t get me wrong, we see some harrowing things that truly shake you: every death is felt, and you find yourself deeply affected by every gun shot, every dead body, and every shock. I remember how i critiqued the violence in monster films that have a nearly apocalyptic fetish, and here Civil War shows that this is not the audience’s problem as much as it is a choice by the filmmakers when depicting acts of physical violence on certain scales. Though if I wish to get into it, it is more likely for someone to feel bad when seeing an innocent person getting shot then seeing a building full of people you don’t see getting thrown at a giant monkey. Both lead to death but it is how you frame it. In all scenes of gunfire and conflict, the film shows snapshots being taken by the photographers in real-time, to show us the image that is eventually published and the events around it. We see images taken in the height of the action that say nothing, and images in the same circumstances that say a lot. The fact that we see bad and good images makes the viewer distinguish the differences between the power of photographic and cinematic images, where image and image-in-motion intersect and/or transcend each other. These sequences become a meditation on how we engage with violent imagery and how we are made to engage with it.

I talked a bit too much about ideas. The film being shot in 1.85:1 aspect ratio creates a detachment from stylized 2.39:1 widescreen associated with action and spectacle, and relating us to TV news and documentary footage shown on television screens in 1.85:1 (16:9) aspect ratio. Even further, the film tones down any stylized lighting and embraces a more naturalistic way of lighting the film and a grounded, regular color palette that reflects documentary and news footage, making the experience similar to watching television, grounding the events in “reality” - by visually associating the staged film with untagged images of filmed reality seen on mass media outlets. The film has a slow, steady pace to let the events sink in and take their weight. There are stretches of human warmth amidst total loss of humanity and terror. A few encounters make you really anxious - especially the Jesse Plemons sequence. The final act of the film is one long action sequence with a nice contrast between soldiers shooting at each other and in-between the shooting, the photographers emerge, take a photo - an act that resembles shooting with a gun - and duck, like the soldiers. Here, with the final scene, after seeing the parallels between the journalists  and military fighters (throughout the film), the journalists are reveled to be soldiers of documentation, as merciless, utilitarian, and inhumane as soliders fighting the war. The combat sequences have some bizarre music choices which I felt contradict the film’s stance on violence, here not really shown as spectacle but rather as atrocities with no pleasure.

In conclusion, I am somewhat mixed on the film but I still found it a mostly rewarding watch that’s totally engaging and immersive. It’s definitely worth checking out.

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