There’s a photo I remember seeing not too long ago. It was taken in Irpin, one of the suburbs of the Ukrainian city of Kyiv. The first thing I noticed was a Ukrainian soldier staring downwards, a look of numb shock on his face. What he’s looking at is a dead family. A mother and her children. They had been hit in a mortar attack, and as far as anyone could tell, the mortar was fired by Russian forces who were intentionally targeting civilians. 

The photographer was Lynsey Addario. Consider that she was in an active war zone. She likely wore a helmet and a kevlar vest. That offered her a degree of protection, but the only shooting she could do was with her camera. Addario put herself at severe personal risk to bear witness, photograph a moment, and allow viewers to understand the reality of war, if only for the briefest moment.

As Americans, we’re not good at understanding what war is, when it’s necessary, or if it’s necessary. We talk a good game about either rushing out to defend freedom, whatever that means, or ignoring atrocities because “it’s none of our business.” That’s why journalism matters. The right image at the right time can snap a conflict into focus. It can also roll over certain arguments with brutal efficiency. You may have an opinion about the Ukrainian War, but your opinion doesn’t override the reality of that dead family in Irpin.

Unfortunately, a number of us are hostile toward journalism, particularly when it shows us something we don’t like. That leads to polarization, which leads to conflict. Who’s left to document the truth of things? That would be journalists. While you might think that Alex Garland’s new film Civil War is about certain things, what it’s really about is the power and responsibility surrounding combat journalism.

We learn very little about The President (Nick Offerman) or the country he watches over. What we do know is that he’s in his third term. Legally? I cannot say. We also learn that California and Texas have seceded and formed the Western Forces.* Other alliances exist between certain states. Outbreaks of violence are commonplace. The old saying, “It can’t happen here” no longer applies. It is currently happening here.

Lee (Kirsten Dunst) finds herself in New York City. She’s one of the best war photographers in the business, and she’s developed that reputation through shrewdness, talent, and a level of bravery usually spoken of in hushed whispers. She goes where conflict is, and she’s teamed up with her colleague Joel (Wagner Moura). While Joel seems to be motivated by the adrenaline rush, Lee wants to bear witness, though she’d never tell you that.

While covering a protest, Lee rescues Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) from a suicide bomber’s blast. She learns that Jessie idolizes her, and wants to follow in her footsteps. Jessie joins them, which Lee is not thrilled by. She’s even less happy to have Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) join them. Sammy works for “what’s left of the New York Times.” He’s old, slow. Sammy knows he’s a liability, but he thinks he has a responsibility.

The four of them want to travel South. The goal is to enter Washington D.C., interview the President in the eye and hold him to account. That won’t be easy. The Western Forces are close to taking the Capitol, very close. There’s also the fact that they’re in a nation with more guns than people, a country where citizens indulge their darkest whims and call themselves patriots. Lee and her little group understands all of this. America may be fundamentally broken. Their resolve is not.

If you watch the trailer** for Civil War, you’ll see the promise of a film that dives headlong into the boiling partisanship in America, and shows what happens when a cold tribal war goes hot. But that’s not the kind of film that Civil War is. It’s not a kickass war movie that brings us all together under the banner of righteous violence. Nor is it a political thriller that points fingers to identify who the real fascists are.*** Instead, it’s something far more specific.

Director Alex Garland focuses on aspects of journalism, particularly in how journalists conduct themselves while under fire. He made the unconventional choice to film sequentially, and as the film progresses, both the action and tension gradually rise. It culminates at the siege of Washington D.C.. Garland doesn’t shoot these sequences like a Hollywood blockbuster. Instead, he drops us into the conflict and films with panicky energy, dread, and a weary fatalism.**** Visually, Garland gives us just enough information about this future United States and its citizens. He lingers when necessary, but the pacing never suffers. It’s all in service to how and why his protagonists insert themselves into situations that are sometimes ridiculous and almost always life-threatening.

Garland has always been a smart and insightful writer, and his script here is no exception. His strength is in character work, and we learn about these people by observing them. There are no monologues where the themes are overexplained. Instead, we see moments of mind bending heroism and understandable trauma. We always understand why. Having said that, Garland isn’t purely valorizing the press. We see that some of these people are less than idealistic, and sometimes a character’s motivations swerve depending on circumstances. The script trusts us to deal with complex characters instead of cinematic icons.

Garland is so focused on character that the plot is more of a series of vignettes portraying the gradual escalation of hostilities. We go from an uneasy negotiation over gas to a blackly comedic sequence involving a sniper to shattering urban combat in what could be the former U.S. Capitol. I’m okay with plot taking a backseat, since Garland wants us to focus on the emotion and behavior of the journalists. We never find out how their work is distributed or what viewers think of it, but I suppose it’s not relevant. They take the picture, file the story, then move on. This is not to say that Garland doesn’t care about polarization or politics. He does, it’s just that he’s got a very particular story to tell.

As you’d expect from an Alex Garland film, the performances are strong and honest. Stephen McKinley Henderson imbues Sammy with a bruised decency. He plays a professional, someone smart enough to know that readers might not care about his brand of reporting any longer and tenacious enough to not give up. Wagner Moura’s Joel is also a professional, but what gets him moving is the action. There’s a moment where, with a dreamy look on his face, Moura talks about how the sight of tracer rounds in the sky is enough to get him hard. That adrenaline rush doesn’t come naturally to Cailee Spaeny’s Jessie. Nothing comes naturally to her, and Spaeny shows us an impulsive, dumb kid who learns what it takes to be great, sometimes at an awful cost.

There were two performances, though, that stood out even more. There’s a sequence featuring Jesse Plemons that’s one of the most disturbing things I’ve seen in quite some time. While holding Lee’s group at gunpoint, his soldier asks them, “What kind of American are you?” That question may have nothing to do with the outbreak of the civil war, but it means everything to Plemon’s character. He probably thinks he’s a patriot, and one aspect of his patriotism is murdering people who he doesn’t like the looks of. As for Kirsten Dunst, as Lee, she’s doing not only the best work of her career, but Oscar caliber work. She’s playing someone with the near-suicidal bravery needed to cover combat, and she shows us what happens when that brave shell cracks. I believed her wry humor, her resigned mentorship of Jessie, and most of all, her exhaustion. It’s a reminder that Dunst has quietly become one of the best American actors working today.

Civil War is necessary filmmaking for the moment. As I watched moments where Americans strung each other up, dumped bodies into pits, or destroyed beloved monuments, I thought about the people who hate their fellow citizens. I want to ask them, “Is this what you want? Because this is what you’ll get.” Civil War doesn’t dig deep into the hows or whys of this particular conflict. With blazing clarity it does tell us that if our nation is torn asunder and we take up arms against each other, a journalist will be there to document our fall.


*Hilariously unrealistic? Consider that Texas has huge blue areas clustered around cities, and that lots of California citizens have seriously considered both secession and carving up the state into 3/4/5 separate states. Plus, are there actions a rogue President could take that would enrage conservatives and liberals alike? I think so.

**I should point out that filmmakers rarely have any control over the trailers/marketing of their own films. When a trailer promises something and the film doesn’t honor that promise, it’s usually not the fault of the director. 

***It feels like the word “fascist” has become a largely useless word due to its misuse over the last several years.

****For older film fans, it’s reminiscent of Medium Cool and The Battle of Algiers. If you’re not familiar with those, it’s similar to Children of Men in terms of the tone.

Tim has been alarmingly enthusiastic about movies ever since childhood. He grew up in Boulder and, foolishly, left Colorado to study Communications in Washington State. Making matters worse, he moved to Connecticut after meeting his too-good-for-him wife. Drawn by the Rockies and a mild climate, he triumphantly returned and settled down back in Boulder County. He's written numerous screenplays, loves hiking, and embarrassed himself in front of Samuel L. Jackson. True story.