Civil War Review
Civil War Review: A Quasi-Futuristic Anti-War movie reflecting Contemporary Concerns

An incisive and potent take on embedded journalism, it comes at a time when the toll of reporters killed while covering the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict is mounting

4 stars 

Director: Alex Garland 

Writer: Alex Garland 

Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, Cailee Spaeny, Stephen McKinley Henderson

The Plot


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In a dystopian future, America has become a war zone. Various regional fractions, under the leadership of two unlikely allies, California and Texas (indicating that this is not a fight between the Democrats and the Republican), has formed the Western Front (it has its own two-star American flag). Armed with ultra-sophisticated military-grade humvees, helicopters, and weapons this group is revolting against the American government. The fascist President (Nick Offerman), who having disbanded the FBI, is their marked target.


A rag-tag group of newspaper journalists, comprising of Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst), a renowned war photographer, Joel (Wagner Moura), a print journalist, Jessie Cullen (Cailee Spaeny), a cub photojournalist who hero-worships Lee, Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), a veteran journalist and Lee’s mentor, is in hot pursuit of a ‘breaking news’. They want to interview the president before the rebel group storms Washington, DC.  As their press car head towards the ground zero, traversing through a violence riddled and guerilla infested United States, they keep documenting a society-in-collapse through the chaos the skirmishes have left behind along the way.


What is it really about?


Civil War Review Kirsten Dunst


What you feel about the movie depends heavily on the lens you are viewing it through. What initially seems like yet another futuristic American apocalypse movie, also becomes a road movie, a combat thriller, a take on embedded journalism, and a cautionary tale.


The political ambiguity of the movie might disappoint a section of the audience as it does not take any clear stand on the current volatile political landscape of America, a country that goes for presidential election later this year. Although some sequences echo specific historical events and the movie highlights the impact of the sharp rise in extreme radicalism and ‘exclusive’ nationalism, and the militarisation of Christianity in America, the movie is not essentially about the Democrats Vs the Republican debate, and Garland, the creator of Ex Machina and Annihilation, ensures this further by making California and Texas come together in an unlikely alliance.


In a crucial moment in the film, an insurgent shooting at a person inside a building during a stand-off is asked if he knows the political affiliation of the other person, and in reply he points out, that it hardly matters as you shoot the other person simply because otherwise, he will shoot you.  It is not about politics but about survival. It is indeed a loaded statement. But at the same time Garland leaves many things unsaid—the social and political context of the war is largely left unexplored. The movie starts in medias res – we don’t get to know get to know what started the war, what the ‘Antifa massacre’ that Lee had earlier covered was, which political party is in power, or even the name of the President. We enter the story when things have already descended into a steady chaos. We are dragged through the carcasses that the on-going conflict has left behind while newer brutalities unfold all around at regular intervals.


Instead of dissecting the political ideologies that has led to the armed conflict, the focus is on the devastations faced by a war-ravaged country and Garland views this through the objective and dispassionate lens of the war correspondents that stoically document the unfiltered present for posterity. In turn, the movie also documents the ethical standpoints of embedded journalism, the physical and emotional challenges faced by war correspondents and the camaraderie among the people working in the line of fire.


Having started my career as a field journalist I almost got nostalgic seeing the little moments that are so unique to the profession depicted in such detail—be it the adrenaline rush while chasing leads for a scoop, or the equation between the reporter and his/her photographer that makes one almost trust the other with his/her life, or the bond between the often over-enthusiastic but inexperienced cub reporters and their worldly-wise senior mentors, and the deep understanding of the physical dangers that the job might land you in.


Civil War Review Kirsten Dunst


This is not the glamourous world of coffee-drinking immaculately dressed desk journalists that Hollywood these days is smitten with. It is a scary world where any moment you can get unceremoniously shot by militants. It is a ruthless world that makes you become desensitised to violence, where after a point death becomes just statistics, and your job, that is essentially about recording facts, requires you to nonchalantly ask a terrorist to pose for a picture flanked by victims of his brutality. Or sample this: there is a chilling and poignant scene in the climax, when just before a very important political leader is shot, the journalist halts the assassination in order to get a quote, ‘the last words’ from the politician and the politician obliges—it is easy to call the journalist’s action inhuman but that is the job at hand. It is not easy to get used to the idea that the job is to not save lives but to just document the deaths. And it doesn’t help when people question your morality while you are trying hard to adhere to journalistic ethics.


By incorporating with three journalists of three different generations in the group, it deftly brings to fore how the profession and the single-minded pursuit of dry facts evolve a person over time with the core, the love for the profession staying intact.


Also, as a print journalist, a profession that seems to be almost on the verge of becoming obsolete owing to the rise of digital media, I also found an unlikely silver lining in the bleak apocalyptic world of Civil War— this future is not contaminated by social media influencers trying to make reels out of human sufferings. Instead, here we have the photo journalists trusting the good-old film camera (Lee uses a Sony α7 while Jessie is armed with her dad’s Nikon FE2 and F-3), to document hard facts. Here the journalist’s job is still that of a chronicler of times -- their lens is not blurred by their personal politics. Here a ‘good story’ is not the about serving the best-dramatised version of reality but capturing dramatic realities, sometimes even at the cost of one’s life.


The Craft 

The motely bunch of actors fit their role to the T with Dunst giving a pitch-perfect performance as Lee, the ‘battle-hardened’ decorated photo journalist --the inherent vulnerability of her face beautifully contrasting its stoicism. Alex Garland, much like his journalists, keeps a dispassionate perspective without tinting the story with his personal politics. Cinematographer Rob Hardy, a frequent collaborator of Garland having worked in his Ex Machina and Annihilation, creates an immersive world worthy of an Imax watch. The bleak world is illuminated by gun fires and burning debris, often shot in slow motion making the terrifying look stunning. One might even accuse the visually stunning anti-war movie, replete with beautifully designed and executed combat set pieces, of feeding the audience’s craving for violence. But the soundscape of the movie balances this out with jarring tracks putting the ‘terrifying’ back to the visual beauty.



For those looking at a poignant take on the current political landscape of America, this is not that film. Although it is a cautionary tale on the future that awaits with the sharp rise in radicalism, jingoism, white supremacy, and weaponisation of Christianity, Alex Garland’s movie is not about the red-versus-blue state conflict.  Instead, the movie views the devastation and chaos of a country at war through the objective lens of war correspondents. While at it, the movie also gives a very real take on the ground realities of embedded journalism highlighting the life risks the frontline reporters face and the moral dilemma they often need to overcome while trying to objectively document the gruesome goings-on. In fact, the triumph of Garland is in the way he explores the role of journos as chroniclers of history and how their objectivity can help make sense of reality.


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Although it is supposed to be set in a dystopian future, the world depicted in the movie is a rather familiar one (especially with the number of journalist casualties mounting every day in the on-going Israel-Palestine war). And that is what makes this doomsday movie such an uncomfortable watch.


One hopes that by depicting how close America is to a civil war, Garland’s movie would be able to jolt the smug Americans to sit up and really take note of the wars the country has been sponsoring across the globe for over decades now — unless it impacts you directly, you don’t really care about things.


Civil War needs an Imax experience. Don’t wait for it to drop on OTT! 

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