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“Civil War”: A love letter to journalism

(Photo courtesy of: Esquire) “Kirsten Dunst stars as Lee Smith in “Civil War”.”

Sabine Laurent de Cannon
Connector Staff

Alex Garland’s Civil War premiered across the U.S. on Thursday of last week. The film severely contrasted expectations, as most who had viewed the trailer expected to watch a violently political story—possibly one that exaggeratedly narrated the vigorous Red v. Blue, Liberal v. Conservative, poor v. rich divide of today’s America. Those who went in looking for politics, however, never found it. Garland’s film not only barely mentions the subject, it feels as though it is actively avoiding it.

But this sounds impossible. How can someone expect to create meaningful commentary on a split military, state secession, and treasonous alliances without any real mention of politics? Is it an act of “bothsidesism?” Or, maybe, an effort to combat the labels of being a “propaganda film?” Judging from how the world of the movie manifests itself to the viewer, it is neither of those intentions. Garland simply did not write what did not matter to the core of his story. Apart from the slight nods at one former president, nationalism, and vigilantism, Civil War is not truly about war, social divides, class struggle, or morality—it is about journalism.

The entire screenplay follows a group of four reporters on their journey from New York City to Washington, D.C., where they are on a mission to interview The President of the United States. Played by Nick Offerman, The President is never given a name. He is an untouchable and secluded figure. Clearly meant to represent the antithesis of transparency and truth, The President acts as his own spokesperson while “shooting journalists on the White House lawn,” viewing them as rebels, traitors, and an active threat to his war against the succeeding states.

Joel, played by Wagner Moura, a journalist from Florida, leads the group on their journey as he is determined to speak with the Commander and Chief. Joel is accompanied by war photojournalist Lee Smith, played by Kirsten Dunst, veteran journalist Sammy, played by Stephen McKinley Henderson, and aspiring young photographer Jessie, played by Cailee Spaeny. Throughout their journey, the group encounters active war zones, refugee camps, vigilante groups, and communities that live separately from the looming conflict. Through these starkly different settings, viewers get an insight into the group mentality of the reporters. All except young Jessie are surprisingly detached from the causes and effects of the human suffering, anger, fear, and tension palpable within every person they face. Their interest lies in one thing: documenting everything.

The development of Spaney’s character, Lee’s mental deterioration and Joel’s perseverance, are all poignant testaments to the enduring significance of those who pursue the exposure of truth. The group becomes an homage to the trauma, numbness, and mental sacrifice that come with a dedication to revealing the horrific realities of the world. Though their world is dystopian, the journalists’ obsessiveness and psychopathy for their craft may be Garland’s way of asserting that the commitment to upholding history’s integrity will never disappear—no matter how bad things get. Kirsten Dunst’s character especially is a love letter to journalism. She embodies the current necessity for honesty and bravery over cowardice and propaganda, as well as the personal collapse that may accompany that pursuit.

As the world reaches a political boiling point, Civil War sends a clear, ethical message: News is of the utmost importance, but only if it is treated with the respect it is entitled to. The film is just as much an ode to the unwavering, brave, and sincere people of the press as it is a scorn to those Garland feels are using the field in vain. It is an unnerving, clear-sighted film that came at just the right time.

Overall Grade: B+

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