Civil War (Alex Garland)


If this one's a big hit, maybe we can get a prequel?

Honestly, I thought it really sucked. No back story, no rationale, no relatable characters, just a pointless civil war and two hours of relentless carnage with contemporary weapons of high lethality. Some of it is very bloody (duh). I should have spent those two hours pulling weeds in my yard.

Thursday Next's Avatar
I never could get the hang of Thursdays.
I saw it today and thought it was OK.

At first it was a bit disappointing because there is no context or backstory, you don't know how any of this happened, who stands for what or even who anyone is and what side they are on most of the time. It took a little while for it to become apparent that this is deliberate: not just to remain politically neutral and get people to watch it, but to make the point that to most people who find themselves in a warzone, none of that matters as much as not getting shot yourself.

I thought it was tonally a bit uneasy at times: too grim to be a fun disaster movie but not quite having the gravitas of a really serious film. The whole construct with the young wannabe journalist was shaky and there were times when the soundtrack seemed really inappropriate. Some of the dialogue could have been better and some of the story choices were a bit telegraphed.

Still, at times it was tense and it certainly wasn't boring. While it avoids taking sides in the big picture, there are some smaller points made: the soldiers who don't know what their orders are but are shooting because someone is shooting at them, the rogue, racist soldiers using the war as an excuse for murderous power play or the gas station vigilantes settling their own scores.

And in the end, I was mostly wondering whether our good guys (the politically neutral journalists) were really the good guys after all, focusing only on getting the shot at any cost. It doesn't matter what awful things are happening as long as you stay neutral and get to be the first to take the picture... A self reflection from the filmmaker, perhaps...?

Saw this today. The fact the backstory/context is totally ignored is just criminal, I cannot imagine what went through Garlandís head to do that. (Well, actually I can; but these bothsidesism cop outs are pathetic).

It almost feels like an Emmerich disaster film for the first forty minutes or so. Of course the Ďtoughí and truly interesting thing to do would be to explore the politics/attitudes at play. But after The Hunt I no longer expect to get to see that (The Hunt felt a bit more put together than this one, imo).

On a separate note, Iíve spent most of my career working with journalists, and before seeing this came across some reviews/articles discussing why journalism is so hard to portray accurately. I think thatís a fair assessment ó the portrayal/characterisation of journalists isnít abysmal, but itís pretty bad.

First of all, bizarrely, we get no distinction between photographers and journalists (not accurate). Second of all, Kirsten Dunstís character becoming obsessed with protecting the young Ďwannabeí girl wasÖ unrealistic? I suppose if someone other than Garland tried to handle this, it could have come off a bit deeper/more grounded, but as is, I just didnít believe the Dunst character would behave in this way at all. The way she abandons shooting towards the end/the pinnacle of it all is obviously intended as a statement, but again, it fell really flat to me and thatís certainly not in line with my lifelong experience of how journalists behave (remembering a few recent conversations on reporting on Russia/Ukraine etc).

This is what some family members of mine might call a ĎHollywood problemí, but the subplot (itís not though, itís the plot, I guess) of the Dunst character taking the girl and the old man under her wing is unnecessary and rather lame. Itís almost as if this was done to give the narrative a moral centre of some sort, but again, this is so unrealistic (and cheesyÖ?).

Any journalist I personally know would have tried to go it alone and focus on the story, actively avoiding any companions who could be a liability. Yet we see Lee actively jeopardising her mission out of that faux humanitarian impulse. Sheís way too experienced for that and I just didnít believe she wouldnít have got utterly hooked/drunk on the story, especially in the end. Iíd have wanted more of a Rosamund Pike/Marie Colvin vibe from A Private War. Itís absolutely idiotic that we donít get Lee/Dunst getting the interview with the president and actually delving into the politics (but then, what else can we expect from the current cultural environment).

The implied message which is (I assume) that the journalists are missing the human suffering for the story/forest for the trees is a little naive. As someone working in an adjacent sector, I tend to feel that bearing witness is indeed in some ways a mission of near-epic significance, especially where such history-making events are concerned. Not sure why the film would want to devalue that, if thatís indeed what itís trying to do. It made me think of the Holocaust references in Oppenheimer and how the film suggests this motivates Oppie, and also the evidence showing the Allies knew about the Holocaust long before 1944, and how journalistic/photographic evidence later was essential and history-making in and of itself. I feel like this would have been the natural direction for the film to go.

This whole angle feels like a huge missed opportunity, and very baffling at that, given that the film doesnít really do anything with the protagonists being journalists. I guess this is to justify them going to D.C. rather than trying to get out, but still. If the bearing witness angle isnít really being explored, why not focus on the politics and the conflict itself, why use the journalists at all? Bizarre.

The quote bit in the ending is pretty good and elicits a chuckle. I can totally see that one. And to be fair, I at least for once liked a female character. Lee was cool.

Agree with most everything said above. The character behavior of the press team seemed senseless at times. And if you want to make a movie about foreseeing a Civil War in the USA, there should be some storytelling around that. Instead, we get a plot that would be seen as subpar in some video games nowadays.

Without knowing anything about the movie besides the trailer, could the backstory simply be some form of what America is currently going through socially and politically?

Without knowing anything about the movie besides the trailer, could the backstory simply be some form of what America is currently going through socially and politically?

It's a film with the typical dog whistles of liberalism and conservatism but it attempts to be apolitical. Unfortunately the film does a lot with race and gender. White men are evil, black people are victims, minorities live in refugee camps while whites are safe and ignoring the world around them.

It's not a bad film, parts of it are very good. The film should have a Platoon quality to it as the war scenes are perfect.

28 Days Later
Ex Machina
Never Let Me Go
Civil War
The Beach

I think the reality of what is causing the kind of political divisions in America that are the genesis for a movie like this, is that a very loud and ignorant and grotesque minority (from both sides) have defined their respective parties in their image. And then the media has created this endless circular loop of spewing this nonsense back at what is probably the mostly reasonable majority.

So a film like this could focus on the normal people caught in the middle of all of this unbelievable horseshit being flung from every side, and the toll it takes on them. Which, actually, would probably be the more interesting way to go.

Or it can focus on the wingnuts. And frankly, if it chooses this approach, having a bunch of characters who are ludicrous beyond parody, and are all deeply unlikeable, and are probably gross stereotypes would probably be pretty close to what these people actually are like. But it wouldn't really be an accurate picture of America. Just this small and very unfortunate group of stubborn and usually very very stupid idealogues that happen to have way too much attention being paid to them.

I'm assuming they have gone with the second option.

I think the main problem with the film is a Hollywood problem. You have a female lead in Kirsten Dunst who is a world weary photographer and that's it. It was also very silly to have Stehpen Henderson an actor that's near 300lbs and 70+ years old playing an on the ground reporter. I think if the film really wanted to be Apolitical he would have been the better President and Nick Offerman who plays the president as the sage/mentor character.

This film takes a lot of keys from the Oliver Stone film Salvador. While Garland makes a much more visually inspired film than Salvador, character wise it's embarrassing. The little things Garland does in the film are great...and much like the film Men which is divisive and not as good but it's still good. This is just something that could have been much better.

I'll mention that I did like Wagner Moura and Cailee Spaeny on screen. Not sure I've seen much of either historically.

After favorable reviews and a strong opening weekend at the box office, Alex Garlandís provocative ďCivil WarĒ is already poised to become one of the most talked-about movies of the year. The filmmakerís graphic, often terrifying depiction of a war-torn America and a government in crisis has sparked plenty of debateamong audiences and critics.

And while the storyís ďwhat-ifĒ premise is pure fiction, ďCivil WarĒ is nonetheless flavored by a gritty realism central to its power.

The principal focus of ďCivil WarĒ is war-weary photographer Lee (Kirsten Dunst) and her writer colleague Joel (Wagner Moura), who pick up an aspiring young photographer named Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) and a veteran journalist named Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) as they set off on a dangerous journey to the White House, where the president is besieged by encroaching rebel forces.

Carolyn Cole, who has covered national and international news for The Times since 1994, saw ďCivil WarĒ late last week and agreed to answer questions about what the film gets right ó and wrong ó in its depiction of journalists operating in perilous conditions. Coleís work on the effects of civil war in Liberia won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for feature photography. She is also two-time winner of the Robert Capa Gold Medal for war photography from the Overseas Press Club of America. The following has been lightly edited.

Overall, how would you rate the accuracy of ďCivil War,Ē speaking from the perspective of an experienced photojournalist?

As horrible as the premise of a current day civil war may be, I thought many of the themes touched on in the movie were realistic, like the interplay between a veteran and novice photographer, and the group of journalists as they traveled together. Although the scenarios they faced were extreme, they were plausible. Real images come to mind like that of the American soldiers hung from a bridge in Fallujah, Iraq, or the U.S. Marine dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia. Iíve photographed riots, firefights, mass graves and the aftermath of deadly bombings. Like all movies, the intensity of each scene is exaggerated, but the scenarios are possible.

Were there any moments in the film that you thought clearly misrepresented the experience of photojournalists working in a conflict? How so?

I thought Dunst did a good job playing a veteran photojournalist, especially in her calm demeanor throughout most of the movie. However, there were several scenes where she was carrying a camera bag but didnít have her camera out. Sometimes she was using a short lens when she should have been using a telephoto lens and vice versa. There were also times when major events were happening and she wasnít taking any pictures. Toward the end of the film, she stops working completely, as PTSD takes over. But compared to many movies Iíve seen that portrayed photographers as paparazzi with a flash attached to the top of the camera, I thought the overall portrayal of the photographers was well done.

There is one scene where Jessie is developing her film in the field. Although some photographers still use film, you need a darkroom to load the film into the developing cans. In the old days, I used to take all the chemicals with me on assignments and develop the film in a bathroom, then dry it with a hairdryer.

The final scenes are clearly over the top, but Lee stepping out into the line of fire to protect Jessie seemed more like a motherly instinct than one of a colleague. By that point, the handing off of the baton to Jessie is in full swing. The physical and psychological effects of working as a conflict photographer, along with the toll it takes on oneís personal life, do pile up over time.

Were there any moments in the film that felt particularly true to life?

There is a scene where Lee and the reporter are in disagreement over who will join them on the trip. That happens. Journalists do team up in vehicles, partly because of costs, limited fuel or for safety. And there are many times you have to sleep in the car, which has happened to me when covering several hurricanes. Thereís a scene where all the cars have been abandoned on the freeway. I saw something similar covering Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Itís amazing how quickly societal norms break down in a crisis. It only takes a day or two before looting begins and people are driving the wrong way on the freeway.

We first meet Lee at a protest in New York that turns explosive. How does her behavior during that scene and others like it compare to your experience?

In their first encounter, Lee lectures Jessie about safety, handing her a bright yellow vest, then shields her during an explosion. Although photojournalists donít wear construction vests, it was a nice gesture. It would be nice to think that any human being would jump in to protect a colleague in that situation, but Iím not so sure.

There are multiple moments in the film when journalists are injured or threatened with injury. How realistic are those dangers, and what did you think of their colleaguesí actions in those scenes?

The dangers of covering conflicts are real. Photographer and friend Chris Hondros, along with Tim Heatherington, were both killed in Libya during the Arab Spring; Associated Press female photojournalist Anja Niedringhaus was killed in a targeted attack in Afghanistan; and I witnessed a colleague grazed in the head by a bullet in Haiti, just to name a few. Over 78 journalists were killed in 2023, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The bond between reporters and photographers can be very strong. Many of the photojournalists working in the field are people Iíve known for years. Itís a fraternity of sorts. We rely on each other, even if we might work for competing organizations. You would expect colleagues to come to each otherís aid in times of crisis. Life and death situations can show the true character of an individual. Iíve seen the results both positive and negative.

What did you think about Dunstís performance portraying Lee as someone increasingly haunted by the horrors she has photographed?

Each person is affected by what they have witnessed in different ways. Iíve never suffered from flashbacks, nightmares or PTSD, but I know others who have. Not only does it take its toll professionally but it can be difficult to maintain relationships in real life. Dunstís performance as Lee seemed realistic in that the years of covering trauma had finally caught up with her. Most likely those flashbacks would happen not in the heat of the battle but when reflecting during more quiet moments. After each conflict I covered, I went right back to covering local news. It helped me to move forward and not dwell on what I had experienced. I poured all my energy into covering each crisis to the best of my ability, knowing that was my role.

Leeís philosophy is that her job is simply to record events and let others ask the questions about the meaning of her images. Do you have a guiding principle in the work that you do?

My mission has always been to be the eyes for those who canít be there to witness whatís happening in person. That was certainly my objective while covering the Iraqi people from Baghdad as the U.S. began to drop bombs there in 2003, and in Afghanistan after the events of Sept. 11. I think of photographs as evidence, documentation of what happened and the effect on those involved. Having a clear sense of purpose gives me the confidence to approach strangers, who seem to understand that Iím there to do a job. Photography is a universal language that most everyone understands. It used to be that most people at home and abroad understood the role of journalists, but unfortunately we have now become targets ourselves.

Lee and her colleagues regularly enter volatile situations quickly, without really assessing what may be going on or the dangers they may face. They seem to trust their instincts more than the spotty information available to them. What is the real-life process like for knowing where to go and under what auspices?

Itís a process of collecting as much information as possible about any given situation. A road that is safe one day could be too risky the next. Thatís why journalists are always asking questions. It takes drive and determination to get to the front line. In the end, itís about risk-taking. Each person has their own level of risk tolerance. Itís important to travel with people you know and trust, and who you can rely on. What needs to be documented is often something or somewhere officials donít want you to see. Instinct is something you can acquire over time, but it isnít foolproof. I always tell young photographers to spend a few years working in the U.S. and in places like Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean before heading to cover stories farther away. Given whatís happening in our country, we might be at the hot spot here in the near future.

In some scenes, Lee is wearing a helmet or protective gear. In most scenes, particularly the climactic battle in Washington, she is not. Is that realistic?

There were many things about the ending that werenít realistic. I donít believe soldiers would have allowed journalists to be so close to the action, even helping them. Regarding protective gear, some journalists donít wear vests and helmets because they think it gives them a false sense of security, or they canít move as freely. I have always worn it in conflict situations, but Iíve also been lucky not to have been hurt. Plenty of soldiers have been killed wearing their kit.

Jessie, the aspiring photographer, tells Lee after the horrific incident with the militant soldiers that she has never been more scared in her life but that she has never felt more alive. Is that a sentiment you can identify with?

I wouldnít frame it that way. Certainly, living through any life-threatening event is going to be memorable. Your adrenaline is pumping and you are fully present. Itís common to hear civilians who have lived through war reflect on that being the most memorable time in their lives. That said, itís not something anyone would wish for. When you are covering a conflict, there is nothing normal about it. Some people may be drawn to the profession for the adrenaline rush, just like some do dangerous sports. What is most meaningful for me is knowing that I am witnessing history and trying to make images that do justice to the people and events Iím covering.

Carolyn Cole is a staff photographer for the Los Angeles Times. Her coverage of the civil crisis in Liberia won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for feature photography. Cole has been named U.S. newspaper photographer of the year three times. Cole grew up in California and Virginia, before attending the University of Texas, where she earned a bachelorís degree in journalism. She went on to earn a master of artís degree from Ohio University.

The trick is not minding
What little I know seems like the film also has something of a criticism towards war time photographers and possibly the media as well?
Is that a correct assumption?

What little I know seems like the film also has something of a criticism towards war time photographers and possibly the media as well?
Is that a correct assumption?
That's actually pretty far from what Garland himself has said in interviews:

Youíre saying the press is meant to be a check on polarization?

Itís not meant to be, it is. That is its function. When I say external forces and internal forces undermining journalism, an external force might be the context of social media, all these other voices and the power these voices have. You could also have an external force in the form of an influential politician undermining media. But an internal force could be if large and important news organizations deliberately lean toward bias. And you start preaching to a choir, because thatís what the choir wants to hear. Then all of the surrounding choirs cease to trust.

So this film could be seen as a defense of objectivity in journalism?

The film is presenting old-fashioned reporters, as opposed to extremely biased journalists who are essentially producing propaganda. Theyíre old-fashioned reporters, and the film tries itself to function like those reporters. One of the journalists is very young, but theyíre using a 35-millimeter camera, which is the means of photojournalism from an era where the societal function of media was more fully understood and embraced.

I said to someone who works in the film industry, ďI want to make a film about journalists where journalists are the heroes.Ē They said, ďDonít do that, everyone hates journalists.Ē That has a really deep problem contained within it. Saying you hate journalists is like saying you hate doctors. You need doctors. Itís not really a question of you like or donít like journalists, you need them, because they are the check and balance on government.

The trick is not minding
That's actually pretty far from what Garland himself has said in interviews:
Gotcha. Iím trying not to read too much into as when I do eventually watch it, I want to go in as blind as possible.