Watching _Civil War_: impressions and disappointment

Bryan Alexander 2024-04-13

We just saw the new movie Civil War. Afterwards the audience filed out in silence, perhaps stunned.  Our group talked about it energetically, then hit the internet for more, and hence this post.

This post also assumed you’ve seen the movie, so if you haven’t, I hereby raise spoiler shields.  In fact, I’ll use the movie poster as a spacer before I get going:


Nice image, but never seen in the film. Reminds me of the cover art for the 1976 SPI game Invasion: America.


I know what I’m about to say is a minority view (check ratings here), but I found it overall to be an uneven mix of a movie, and ultimately disappointing.  To begin with, it’s not really about an American civil war.  Yes, that’s the background and a good deal of the film’s fabric, but civil war isn’t really the point.  To explain, we begin with an unnamed American president preparing to give a speech.  He tries out several sentences and phrases, rearranging and pronouncing them in different ways, and then cut away.  Crucially, that scene begins out of focus, the camera pointed the wrong way; our unidentified viewer corrects the lens.

That’s really what Civil War is about: photographing a civil war.  And it’s not about amateurs.  First and foremost, above all else, this is a movie about journalism – photojournalism, really, and doing that work in danger zones.  The film takes us through the profession’s ethics, practical tips on practicing it, its competitive nature, and jokes about writers. Photojournalism is where the main plot lies, where most of the time is, who the main characters are.  I mentioned the opening shooting of a president, which the final scene recapitulates in an additional sense. We never learn that character’s politics, policies, or even party.  That president is barely a character at all.  His presidency is not important material for the film; photographing the president is.

That’s because the main characters are journalists: an older photographer, a younger one, and two writers.  Their arcs outweigh by far the rest of the story.  We see the older photojournalist cope with bitterness, being burned out, being famous, and finally getting shaken, while the younger comes into her own. The writers are less important professionally (we don’t see or hear anything they produce) but they play key roles in helping the photographers along.  Throughout the movie we see, presumably, their work, or the output of others, as director Garland inserts still images into action scenes, pausing to remind us of what’s really, well, in focus.

That’s the primary emphasis of the movie.  Its secondary purpose is to be a road movie in the classic American tradition.  That is entirely the plot, our characters hitting the road by car.  It all begins with journalists starting a daring trip to score an unlikely interview. When the road trip ends, the movie stops.  Civil War really treats the road movie genre seriously, hitting beats familiar to anyone who’s watched examples of hat modern American picaresque. Our characters check out scenic bits of the US, sometimes ironically.  They have to make driving decisions, such as getting gas from one station, picking up new riders, avoiding danger, figuring out whom to trust.  They experience sweetness and disaster.

There is really nothing else in the film beyond the journalists’ road trip.  We only see what  they see and hear the rumors they pick up. We never cut to, say, a tv news broadcast, a military headquarters, or the White House.  Garland and the actors do a terrific job of grounding us in the journalists’ world.  There’s a fine scene when they stumble into a sniper duel, and one writer’s desire to learn more than the basic gun vs gun is played for laughs, and we never discover more about that microcosm, including whose side each fighter was on. At one point the older and younger photojournalists press themselves to the ground, waiting for a resolution, and each stares at blossoms emerging from the grass.  We’re locked in with Lee and crew, making the point of view the movie’s point.

In contrast, he titular civil war is almost completely empty of content. It’s ending as the movie begins, and there’s no doubt about the outcome.  We learn nothing about the nature of the opposing forces.  What caused the conflict and how it proceeded are matters on which Civil War is coy.  As I said, we see what our journalists see, and even then, most of it is vague.  We can’t tell who’s fighting whom in most of the scenes, as uniforms seem optional and flags scarce, and the journalists prefer just to capture what they see.

There’s an anti-civil war theme which the trailers loudly proclaimed.  It appears starkly in a clunker of a scene, when the weary older photojournalist tells the weary old writer that she wanted to warn people not to have civil wars.  I can accept this theme, having spent two weeks in one (Yugoslavia in the 1990s), and the movie tries to make sure you can’t miss the point as it shows a lot of people being killed without chances for surrender or mercy. War is bad is deeply unsurprising and general theme of war movies, yet the journalism point of view makes this dubious.  The film wants us to cheer on the characters for getting great shots. There’s no space for the younger photojournalist to bow out and choose another career – indeed, the final scene, where she captures the downfall of the president, is her apotheosis. I’m reminded as ever of Truffault’s line about there not being any truly antiwar movie.  War is bad, says Civil War, especially a cryptically civil one like this; now marvel at the lovely footage and exciting set pieces.

And the movie is truly marvelous to watch. Garland offers powerful scenes: people hanging for some apparent crime; a fire seeing a character to death; a cruel confrontation between soldiers and civilians; claustrophobic firefights; an epic vision of one army marching on Washington.  The film blends sound and visuals well, pulling back audio to let images and characters’ reactions carry the emotional burden, or hitting us HARD with sudden bursts of noise.  Editing is fast, with scenes ending and jumping suddenly into the next.  As I said, the actors are very fine.

Perhaps there’s a genre problem with the movie.  It’s definitely a thriller, with explosions, daring rescues, multi-car hijinks, and plenty of shooting.  I do wonder how many watched it just for that purpose. It’s definitely a road movie. It’s sort of a war film, although that’s the background, as I’ve said.  It’s also science fiction, taking place in some near term future at least a decade away, although there are no signs of any changes to technology, social organization, or culture.  Ultimately, it’s a journalism movie.  Not My Girl Friday, but more like Welcome to Sarajevo, being about people covering a conflict rather than the war itself (although technically more impressive).

Civil War is also about the succession of generations.  Age versus youth is one of the oldest story tropes, and we see it here in the clash between Lee and Jessie.  Lee’s a hero, well established, and Jessie is, classically, just a kid.  We see Lee get weathered and degraded by the trip, eventually cracking up under fire, while Jessie loses her innocence in stages and grows as a photographer.  Ultimately Lee literally takes a bullet for Jessie, and the latter shoots the event several times.  Thankfully, the movie stops short of using generational shorthand for the two, although it can’t resist the younger one preferring a film camera to a digital one, developing photos by hand.

We don’t get such a generational dynamic for writing, which doesn’t really exist in the film, as noted.  More, we don’t have a sense of such a socially grounded passage of time in the titular war.  Since we don’t know what it’s about beyond secession (and if that was the idea, why invade Washington? and what happened to Florida’s friends?) we can’t see which order passes away and what new order arises in its place.   The movie’s conclusion is military, with tanks crashing around DC and driving hard for the White House (for me, echoing North Vietnam’s capture of Saigon), and a squad takes out the president. We don’t know what happened.

Is this a commentary on the limitations of photojournalism?  I don’t think so.  It feels instead like a case of foreground and background, with the title confusing the two.

Readers know I’ve been modeling how civil unrest or even war might break out in America (for example).  I’m certainly looking for fictional representations of this.  Garland’s Civil War gives me some fine visuals, and a very narrow focus on one profession in such a conflict, but nothing more.