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Civil War Holds a Harrowing Mirror Up to Reality

Director Alex Garland discusses the power of not providing answers in a film built to be divisive.

by Prabhjot Bains

Alex Garland’s Civil War is many things: harrowing, beautiful, immersive, and incendiary. But its greatest strength lies in the answers it doesn’t provide. Its story, about a near-future dystopian America, doesn’t interrogate what caused seemingly unlikely rebel factions like the “Western Forces of Texas and California” or “The Florida Alliance” to battle against the President’s loyalist forces. Those details are deliberately left opaque—or “semi-opaque,” as Garland told me during a roundtable discussion.

Civil War is effectively a road trip movie, following four journalists on the road to Washington D.C to interview the President (Nick Offerman) before he’s killed or captured. Kirsten Dunst plays Lee, a lauded photojournalist who exemplifies the conviction and craft of her esteemed namesake, Lee Miller. The long years behind the camera have made her both jaded and emotional, diluting the objective lens she’s famous for.  She works for Reuters New Agency with her Floridian partner Joel (Wagner Moura). The two are accompanied by their older and disabled colleague, Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), who works for “What’s left of the New York Times,” and Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), an aspiring war photographer who idolizes Lee—sometimes to a dangerous fault.

Audiences are dropped into the conflict they’re tasked with covering with little exposition or context, left to be immersed in its increasing mess and destruction with each deafening explosion. It’s all part of Garland’s plan to craft a startling thinkpiece. Instead of diagnosing the current “American Schism,” Civil War trains its lens on the journalists precariously covering it, manifesting as an epic, violent treatise on journalistic integrity and the futility of side-taking.

As we accompany these journalists through the bloody, fractured heart of America, Garland’s film becomes less about the titular future conflict and more about the war within modern journalism itself. Civil War asks: should reporters be completely objective and detached? Or should they choose sides and embed emotion into their stories? The film deftly embodies the former philosophy when posing such questions, prompting the audience to battle over the “right” answer. In this way, Garland notes Civil War functions as a cinematic parallel to “old fashioned journalism or reporting, where explicit bias is removed…in order for it to be trusted.”

Amid even the most frenetic and blood-curdling of battle sequences, Garland allows his reporter protagonists to bring them to a standstill. With each click of the camera shutter, they capture wanton brutality and devastation, freezing them momentarily to force audiences to grapple with their disparate meanings and implications.

The level of realism ingrained in these images are what lend it an uncanny resonance. “Civil War’s cues come more from non-fiction than fiction… its points of reference are news footage, documentaries, and lived experience,” Garland says. He notes that “film has, over decades, created a grammar about what happens when someone gets shot…many films have big fountains of blood, people flying backward.” In  Civil War, and in real life, however,  “someone just falls down, as if the lights have been switched off.” In veering away from cinematic embellishment, Garland taps into an uncomfortable, bracing vision of political polarization.

While the repeated still photography can be read as a gimmick, Garland and cinematographer Rob Hardy never overplay it, rendering it a powerful choice that weaponizes the varied perspectives and experiences we bring to the images. Each thoughtfully framed still cuts deep both on a visual and thematic level, because Garland understands the greatest stories “leave space for the audience, [as] they cannot be cut out of the process.” In leaning into this effect, Civil War doesn’t render any one interpretation invalid, allowing it to further wriggle under the skin of an increasingly divided audience—especially one during an election year.

However, despite how open Civil War leaves its conversation, Garland notes his own beliefs are coded into the film’s subtext. “Not being clear about it in movie terms doesn’t mean [I’m] neutral, it just means it’s unspecified,” he says. Garland adds that “Cinema has, for a long time, been very, very obsessed with ultra-clarity, ultra clear stating of a question and then the ultra clear answering of a question.” In rejecting that model, Civil War makes for a refreshing and rare experience that gives us the tools to answer its difficult questions without answering them for us.

 

Kirsten Dunst stars as Lee Smith, a lauded photojournalist who exemplifies the conviction and craft of her esteemed namesake, Lee Miller.

 

Each performance, either subtle or pronounced, goes a long way in making Civil War’s world feel lived-in and engrossing. Dunst is “one of the few child actors who made the transition into being an older actor, and in a literal way we’ve watched her grow up,” Garland says. He notes that “in the case of a war photographer you need that lived experience… and not all actors have it, that access to that kind of sadness and soulfulness.” Dunst’s glazed-over and weathered performance is a testament to that fact, tragically anchoring us to the savage journey she travels.

The rest of the ensemble holds their own as well. Moura, Henderson, and Spaeny all lend colour, texture, and gravitas to each intense encounter. Yet, It’s Jesse Plemons’ turn in the film’s best, most gut-wrenching scene that steals the show. His cameo, as a soft-spoken, gun-toting soldier of unknown allegiance, interrogates the group of horrified journalists, with each question cutting through the screen like a high-caliber bullet. By the time he asks, “What kind of American are you?” we’re left speechless.

Yet, despite all the bloodshed, Civil War is inarguably a gorgeous-looking experience. Garland tows a skillful line between the beautiful and the guttural, the painterly and the abrasive. In juxtaposing picturesque vistas with unadorned viscera, often focusing on dreamlike flowers amid the gunfire, Civil War conjures a visual language that is as seductive as it is nerve-wracking. Garland notes the film is shot “largely on long lenses…putting the cast in a bubble of intensity.” It’s a quality that serves to empower the masterful world-building, which never overexplains itself, instead offering us dollops of information that both pique our interest and our sense of existential dread.

Though Civil War will go on to be called prescient, it’s a descriptor that doesn’t sit well with Garland. “I feel almost embarrassed sometimes that I write a story that then gets called prescient, and it’s not true,” he says. “The situation now is pretty much identical to four years ago, it just might be slightly worse, but it’s essentially identical.” Yet, despite his reservations, it’s a label that taps into Civil War’s legacy as a cautionary epic that’s both eerily timely and timeless.

 

Director Alex Garland (Photo: Corey Nickols)