New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

Review: ‘Civil War’ asks viewers what kind of American they are

Alex Garland criticizes journalistic and bystander integrity in his new A24 film “Civil War.”
“Civil War” released in theaters on April 12, 2024 (Courtesy of A24)

British filmmaker Alex Garland has returned to A24 with his newest film “Civil War.” Though the title suggests otherwise, the film is less about politics and more a critique of how Americans can’t sustain democracy or civility. The film begins with an internal war in America where the fictitious Western Forces — California and Texas — instigate an anarchic uprising. Garland orchestrates a riveting commentary by using journalistic integrity as a metaphor for bystander mentality and innate, animalistic survival instincts.

The film follows three journalists, Lee (Kirsten Dunst), Joel (Wagner Moura) and Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), and an aspiring war photographer, Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), on their way to cover a piece about the president. During their journey, they take videos, get caught in multiple war zones and are even held captive by the riveting Jesse Plemons — who was only on screen for roughly 10 minutes but stole the show.

Moura was a perfect casting to portray Garland’s exaggeration of the journalists’ lack of empathy. In the first part of the film, Joel is seen joking and laughing as a gunman from an unidentified militia fires bullets at three hostage soldiers. This contrasts when, later in the film, Joel and his friends are in danger and he sobs uncontrollably, not able to stomach the pain of seeing someone he knew die. Garland uses Joel to point out a fatal disconnect in American mentality: Violence and injustice is fine when it happens to someone else, but it’s an issue when it happens to them.

I need to acknowledge Dunst and Spaeny’s fantastic acting in the film. It was truly captivating the way Dunst spoke on behalf of an entire country’s emotions. She may not have some of the pep she once did in her 2000s cheerleader film “Bring It On,” but she held my attention captive in a way no war film ever has. Spaeny’s performance was also almost too believable; at times her acting was so realistic, it felt less like a narrative film and more like a documentary.

It’s imperative to study history to prevent past mistakes, but Garland implies we, as a country, have not learned from our mistakes through Sammy, Lee and Jessie’s continuous cycle of hollow ambition. As shown from the very beginning of the film, Lee feels tortured by her life as a war photographer, burdened with the traumatic memories of violence and fatality. Jessie begins the film a naive, advantageous photographer, but grows more haunted the more atrocities she witnesses.

Garland’s small stylistic choices add to the blunt horror of the film and theme of crumbling democracy. In one scene, Lee, Joel and Jessie are following an unclarified militia group as they engage in a shootout with the Western Forces. The group eventually captures three hostage soldiers and continuously shoots them while “Say No Go” by De La Soul plays over clips of Joel joking with a rebel, the gunman laughing maniacally and Jessie taking pictures. The juxtaposition of the upbeat song and jokes to the raw horror of shooting someone was too blunt, and a little inappropriate, but inevitably showed how emotionally disconnected the group was from the violence. However, Garland’s inclusion of Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream” as the team drives through a burning campground is a subtle and genius hint at the falling dream of democracy.

What makes this movie so unsettling is the blatant disregard for journalistic integrity. Sure, photojournalism is necessary in times of political anguish to tell a story and inform the public, but the journalists in this film weren’t doing either. They weren’t serving a greater purpose, but were instead exploiting the trauma of war in an attempt to get the money shot. Lee and Jessie were going over the footage of Jessie’s first time shooting a war zone when Jessie stops on a picture she took of a dead soldier as he was killed. Instead of empathizing with Jessie or acknowledging the horror of the situation, Lee simply says, “It’s a great photo, Jessie.” Though a tad bit exaggerated and unrealistic, Garland does a great job portraying those journalists in a hauntingly selfish, inhumane way that questions the integrity of photojournalism.

Garland executes a horrific and inhumane, but inevitably raw and brilliant, film by toying with the very real fears from the Jan. 6 insurrection. The blunt gore and violence is not for all viewers, but I believe this film is the next political and humanitarian cinematic classic.

“Civil War” is now playing in select theaters.

Contact Bella Simonte at [email protected].

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