Why Is Civil War So Evasive About The Nature Of Its Civil War, And So Weird About Journalists?

I’ve never heard gunshots like the ones in Civil War. Or, rather, I’ve never heard them in a movie. If you’ve ever been to a firing range, or just lived in a city for a while, you know the sound, a dry, brittle snap so unlike the seat-rattling boom when John Wick puts down a rival. You hear it a lot in Alex Garland’s movie, as the Reuters photojournalist Lee, played by Kirsten Dunst, makes her way through the combat zone that is now the eastern United States, along with her colleague Joel (Wagner Moura), the novice photographer Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), and Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), a writer for “what’s left of the New York Times.” Movie gunfire usually hits you in the chest, emphasizing the power of the person doing the shooting. But Civil War’s trebly pops lodge in your shoulders, building up tension with no hope of release. “Cinema has this funny way of being reassuring, in subtle ways, whilst being very dramatic,” Garland told the Globe and Mail this week. “We took some of the reassuring subtleties out.”

Civil War is characterized as much by what’s not in it as what is. The movie, which Garland wrote and directed, opens with the president (Nick Offerman) rehearsing for a TV broadcast in which he claims to be on the cusp of victory over the Western Forces, an insurrectionist faction that includes the states of California and Texas. From the war correspondents’ chatter at their home base, a hotel in the loyalist stronghold of Manhattan, we learn that the president is currently serving his third term, that he’s disbanded the FBI, and that he treats journalists as “enemy combatants,” which makes Lee and Joel’s plan to make their way through the front lines for a White House interview something between a thrill ride and a suicide mission. But is the insurrection in response to that authoritarian power grab, or the other way around? What, beyond the desire to hold power, do any of the factions stand for, or even claim to? There’s more detail in the map tweeted out last week by the movie’s distributor, A24, than in the movie itself, including the existence of a “New People’s Army” occupying most of the northwestern states that doesn’t even rate a mention during the film’s 109-minute run time.

Garland is trying to avoid falling into a pat partisan allegory about The Times We Live In—or, in realizing paranoid fantasies about armed insurrection, to “accidentally make Triumph of the Will,” as he put it at a postscreening Q&A on Monday. Rather than feed the country’s polarization, he’s tried to stay above the fray. “Left and right are ideological arguments about how to run a state,” he said at South by Southwest in March. “That’s all they are. They are not a right or wrong, or good and bad.” In an interview with the Guardian, he would discuss his own political beliefs only off the record, and when he appeared on The Daily Show to promote the film, his discomfort with even the mildest attempts to pin him down was so palpable it was difficult to watch. “It is very vague about some stuff, and it is very, very specific about other stuff,” he contended, without getting into what either kind of stuff might be.

One thing Garland is upfront about is that he sees the movie as a tribute to the work of war correspondents. He might not tell us which states make up the Florida Alliance (beyond, presumably, Florida), but he wants to make sure we know that Dunst’s character is named for the legendary photojournalist Lee Miller, to the extent that Spaeny’s character not only remarks on the eponym but goes on to explain who Lee Miller was to the woman named after her. In an interview with the Atlantic, he described Civil War as being inspired by the “old-fashioned journalism” of his youth—which is to say the objective, unbiased kind. “I wanted the film to function like that.”

Garland’s father was a political cartoonist—according to (what’s left of) the New York Times, he “grew up chatting with journalists at the dinner table”—and, like George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck, Civil War feels more informed by filial nostalgia than adult understanding. Lee isn’t a noble caricature; in fact, Dunst looks positively worn, less disinterested than simply numb. But Garland sets them so far apart from the fray that their objectivity starts to look like incuriosity. Journalists, at least the old-fashioned kind, are meant to separate their work from their feelings, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have any.

Garland loves big, honking symbolism—in his 2022 movie Men, the heroine comes upon a tree laden with apples and is warned not to touch the “forbidden fruit”—so it’s not surprising that he’s more interested in photojournalism as an act of icon-making than one of elucidation. Coming upon a downed helicopter in the parking lot of an abandoned shopping mall, Lee counsels Jessie to grab the shot because “it’ll make a good image.” But an image of what? Lee Miller sent photographs of Dachau and Buchenwald to an American audience that had not begun to grasp the true horror of the camps. Compared with that, an abandoned helicopter near a J.C. Penney just looks vaguely badass.

Civil War is flush with images of the horrors of war, some of them, like the shot of a character climbing out of a mass grave piled with corpses, strong enough to rattle you. As they mingle with Lee’s memories of the brutalities she’s witnessed abroad, the point is clear: This can happen here. But Garland’s iconography is deracinated, disconnected. There’s more charge in Independence Day blowing up the White House than in Civil War’s shootout at the Lincoln Memorial, and when armed troops finally breach the Oval Office, you don’t know whether you’re witnessing a victory over tyranny, the beginning of a new one, or both. These are the moments journalism exists to contextualize, not record with the neutrality of a security camera. The only shock comes from witnessing what amounts to a replay of Jan. 6 and realizing you feel nothing at all.

Purposeful though it may be, Garland’s squishiness can read only as a failure of nerve. A more successfully political movie wouldn’t be so wary of aiming at real targets, and a bolder allegory might do away with meaning altogether, suggesting logic itself as a casualty of war. In George Romero’s The Crazies, a military pathogen turns small-town citizens into homicidal loons who can’t be cured or reasoned with; they are the pure products of America, and they’ve gone crazy. As an unnamed soldier who holds the journalists at gunpoint, Civil War’s Jesse Plemons ventures the closest to that register of impermeable madness, but when he starts quizzing them, one by one, about “what kind of American” they are, he’s revealed as merely a smaller-than-life bigot. Offerman’s president remains a cipher, absent even the stature of his office (which, to be fair, has been awfully tarnished of late). He’s just a man in a house.

In Anna Deavere Smith’s play House Arrest, a veteran photojournalist reflects on the necessary drudgery of covering every presidential event, no matter how minor. “When you’re tromping through the 37th factory of the day, and hearing the same boilerplate speech, it does feel a little bit like you’re just there to watch the body,” he says, to “protect (in the Washington lingo) your organization … just in case POTUS gets waxed.” Even war has a balance of boredom and life-threatening action, with journalists and combatants alike on constant watch for the moment when one abruptly becomes the other. But in Civil War, we don’t fear that shift, because we always know it’s coming. Garland’s flair for the exceptional blinds him to the importance of the ordinary people who are both the perpetrators and the victims of this national calamity. Journalism is rooted in curiosity, but he’s surprisingly incurious about the people his characters ought to be both covering and working for. He’s fixed on his images, and misses what’s outside the frame.

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