Civil War: A wakeup call for journalism

Alex Garland’s film Civil War taps into the director’s trademark nerve-inducing wake-up calls that hit close to home about where we are at as a society. There was the wake-up call about artificial intelligence in Ex Machina and whatever nerves he wanted to provoke about humanity with his following films Annihilation and Men. The films leave the audience with a haunting, somewhat uneasy, feeling that makes me have questions about humanity. I normally end up doing deep dives on YouTube for explanations and in-depth analysis of these films. That same uneasy feeling came about in America and was felt across the globe, on January 6th, 2021, as an attack on The Capitol in an attempt to overturn a democratic election, caused democracy to hang in the balance. 

Garland’s Civil War can be seen in the not-so-distant future as America is divided amongst itself into rival factions, as an incumbent president (Nick Offerman) tries to continue to hold power, despite the fact that people want to see him removed from power. The different factions in America are opposed to the loyalist states, with the loyalist states still in the union. The factions that are out to dismantle the loyalist states are The Western Force Alliance (California and Texas), The Florida Alliance (Georgia and Louisiana, aligned with The Western Force Alliance) and The New People’s Army Alliance (Idaho and Louisiana). Caught up in the crosshairs of these factions would be the associated press and journalists trying to cover the new world order amidst the chaos. 

Instead of the war being the central focus we get a shift in focus: the bystanders of the war that hold truth to power with a war photographer, journalist Lee Smith (Kristen Dunst)  and reporter Joel (Wagner Moura). Their main goal or objective is to gain an interview with the president of the United States, get him on record and hold him accountable before the fighting factions get to him. Along for the ride are veteran journalist Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), who Lee claims might slow them down due to his age, and aspiring journalist photographer Jessie (Cailee Spaeny). Joel, Sammy and Lee impart their knowledge of the trade to newcomer Jessie who idolizes Lee and her work. Little backstories of the horrors of war are told through the photographs that Lee has taken, as she still seems haunted by them. 

As the journey goes the group gets caught up with some resistance fighters who they tail as a full-fledged war is happening. They have to escape from a sniper on the side of the road. Probably the most harrowing journey comes with a full crescendo at the end of the second act as the team faces the harrowing militia soldier (Jesse Plemons, real-life married to Kristen Dunst) who holds the group at gunpoint and asks them what kind of American they are. One of the most villainous performances of the year that puts Austin Butler’s Feyd Rautha in contention for villain of the year. After the events unfold there is a great moment where the score from Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow takes over and Joel has a moment of rage and agony over how the events transpired. 

The score is one of the other best reasons to see this film in theaters and the other would be the sound design of the guns in contrast with the camera’s shutters clicking capturing these moments. For those who might write Civil War off as an externally threatening war film about democracy, they are not wrong. Garland probably had those thoughts going on in his head as he watched January 6th unfold. The world still in pandemic mode was transfixed to their television that day as well. The underlying urgent war that Garland wants to get across is not only democracy, but to highlight the journalists and the press that risk their lives during war to hold truth to power through reporting and capturing the images. Journalists are the lifeblood during wartime that hold truth to power and people accountable. 


Alex Garland’s Civil War is currently playing in theaters and out soon on a premium video rental release window in June.

Remi is the host of At The Movies Along Co-Host Danny Aubery every Tuesday morning from 8-9 AM only on CJLO 1690 AM. They cover local film festivals, have interviews with directors and actors, and talk about a new film or the classics.