Film Review – Civil War

Yes, we are a music magazine and don’t usually review non-music films, but music photography is a large focus of our enjoyment as a gig, so we are reviewing this as a photographer.

I am late to Civil War. Other than seeing some general impressions of the film, not all positive. I haven’t really engaged with what people’s views have been. I have just got out of a showing and thought as a photographer, I would gather my thoughts, as the film is more of a homage to war journalists than I had realised.

Alex Garland’s film takes place in a near future version of the USA where a President seems to have overstepped his Presidential power, closing down the institutions of government and staying on for a third term. An alliance of southern states have waged war on the President who has authorised the bombing of US citizens.

The actions follows two war correspondents Lee, an awarding war photographer, (Kirsten Dunst) and Joel (Wagner Moura) in the final days of the war as they race to DC in the hope of capturing an interview with the President before he’s disposed. Along for the journey are Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), a young rookie photographer and Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), a seasoned New York Times journalist who doesn’t know how to retire. 

For much of the film it is a road journey through a war torn un-United States. However, it is less about the civil war, with the film exploring what makes a war correspondent do what they do. Why would you put yourself in danger to photograph the worst side of humanity? Alex’s father was a journalist at the Telegraph and Alex grew up around people like those in the film. This is his homage to these courageous people.

Kirsten Dunst is excellent in the role of an experienced war photographer who has shut herself off the horrors she photographs, who in Jessie, she’s herself and does not want her to become her. She is disillusioned because she knows she has switched off part of her humanity, to capture the horror. Having believed she was sending messages back home to stop people so people doing the same, with Americans fighting Americans, she knows sacrificed part of herself for no reason. Jessie meanwhile looks up at Lee and gradually like the American soldiers around her who are killing fellow Americans, she becomes more immune to the horrors she is photographing. 

The film is beautifully shot. The cinematographer, Rob Hardy, manages to make the film feel like it has been captured by a war photographer. Pretty much all the film is filmed as first person, putting you right in the action and horrors.

I am not sure what I was expecting. Given the political aspect, I had expected the politics to be more overt. But they aren’t. At no point do the journalists discuss the right or wrong of the opponents. While, there are fascistic aspects to the President, no side is presented as right or wrong. The war’s progress simply plays out and documented by the journalists.

As a photographer, I have never been able to do street photography. I always see people and not photos. I’ve never understood the idea of photographing people dying. Seeing death as a photograph, seems dehumanising. I found this a really interesting study of a type of photography I could never do. The idea of running towards danger is challenging enough. To photograph and not help, seems completely alien to me. With daily images bombarding us about the horrors happening to civilians in Gaza, I keep wondering how you can ‘stand by’ and photograph such horrors. But it is because these horrors are happening that people are capturing them. It needs us to be horrified to remember our humanity and do something about to stop it from happening. This film, is about those people who hold up a mirror to our inhumanity. Definitely a candidate of my film of the year.

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