Saturday, May 18, 2024

“The Civil War Did Not Take Place” – How Images Are Reality In Alex Garland’s Vision Of A War-Torn America

If Alex Garland is to be believed, then “Civil War,” his latest feature that’s proven as polarizing to audiences as the explosive conflict in the smoke-plumed cityscapes of the film, is a love letter to the valor and importance of “objective” journalism. It’s a point he often references in interviews, a film designed to honor journalists’ honest, nonpartisan viewpoint in a time of intense polarization and extremism. As Kirsten Dunst’s veteran war photographer Lee says at one point in the movie, “We record, so other people ask.” However, beneath the cinders of blazing interstate warfare is a darker edge to that journalistic pull. The nominal apoliticism of “Civil War” has been attacked as a critical flaw, following a team of war journalists who seem to possess few values of their own –– yet Garland’s blistering vision reveals hollowness as precisely the point. “Civil War” exposes a mindset increasingly (and damningly) true of our own, forcing us to bear witness to the addictive allure of capturing and consuming spectacle divorced from sociopolitical meaning, flattening real life into images that overpower our ability to engage with the world around us.

If “Civil War” is a love letter to journalists, Garland found a funny way to show it. To start with, the war journalists we follow are jaded, adrenaline-chasing, ghoulish sickos. Dunst’s Lee decries the dwindling impact of journalism and the softening power of war photography, while Wagner Moura’s crossfaded Joel pontificates how a nearby firefight with explosions in the air gets him hard; war journalism as kink. Stephen McKinley Henderson’s Sammy is the one voice of reason, a man of earned years writing for the nearly-defunct New York Times. Caught in the anxious middle is Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), a young and spritely photographer-to-be, who only pushed her way onto the crew’s mission to photograph and interview the sitting president (Nick Offerman, playing a fascist) because of Joel’s flirtatious intentions (he wastes no time offering to ‘stay up all night’ to keep her company).

Despite the hot air spent debating the accused apoliticism of “Civil War,” more alarming is the political apathy of Lee’s team as they try to interview a third-term sitting president who’s killing civilians. While watching, it isn’t hard to decode Garland’s political leanings; the Bad Guys are all painted as right-wing extremists, from Jesse Plemmons’ terrifying white nationalist to a militant president who executes the press on sight while he wears a red tie. On the flip side, the Western Forces execute the president and his cohorts in a manner identical to how Seal Team 6 killed Osama bin Laden and his family; they’re murderers but in the accepted post-9/11 American Style.

No such political or moral clarity is ever given to Lee, Joel, or Jessie. We can surmise they’re against the president and aren’t afraid of working with the W.F., but despite their meritorious mission to interview the fascist-in-chief, fundamental building blocks of character motivation and political viewpoint are slyly withheld. Not once do they seriously discuss why they want to photograph or interview the president, not once do they seriously discuss what questions to ask, and not once do they seriously discuss what change, if any, they hope this interview will achieve? If Lee doubts the efficacy of journalism in this ambiguous and grim future, why would this last attempt change things? Even the most “objective” journalist balances a broader context with the personal perspective of the reporter to choose what facts, quotes, and images will be most salient to capture that moment in time. Yet, none of Garland’s characters discuss any of that. Instead, despite criticisms of being underwritten, their political (or moral) blankness is their defining trait, so hyper-focused on winning their grail-prize of a story or a timeless photograph.

When seeing that absence of clear motivations in the context of Lee’s “We take photos so others ask the questions’ mindset, “Civil War provokes ethical questions about the ontological nature of reporting and what it means to be a journalist and a documentarian. Where should “you end and your journalistic work begin? Lee’s attitude seems to be “all I do is take pictures, but that betrays her authorship and creative point of view on what pictures would have meaning, sounding off like she’s John Ford bemoaning his movies “aren’t art, as he famously barbed to reporters. Though world-weary and cynical, Lee does a disservice to her own role in what she creates, even as she can’t articulate why she’s drawn to create it.

Instead, we repeatedly see the creative, emotional and intellectual process behind why Lee and Jessie snap some photos and not others, with eventually louring results. Lee brings Jessie to a crashed helicopter site “because it would make a good picture, while Jessie is drawn to the shocking display of hung-up prisoners bloody and baking in the sun, sniffing out a moment she wanted to capture a photograph despite the presence of a leering armed guard. She froze and missed her shot, but in another moment of journalist-as-sicko psychology, when Jessie breaks down sobbing back in the safety of their car, she vocalizes her principal trauma was not just distress at a terrifying situation but her failure to get her picture.Jessie promises she won’t ever miss her shot again, and from that moment, she unblinkingly and unaffectedly rushes into combat to feed her rolls of film, delivering shot after shot of the carnage around her. It’s as though the prize of a perfect picture has numbed her to the sickening truth of their wounds, deaths, and pain. From then on, Jessie has found her subject: death. Almost every “kill shot in “Civil War comes from her camera, from a dying soldier at a multi-story building in fits of screams, an execution squad in a nearby field, to the point-blank murder of the White House press secretary, and, of course, the ultimate killing of the president himself. By the film’s White House raid climax, Jessie is so drunk with the photogenic allure of grotesque spectacle that soldiers must physically restrain her, like yanking a dog from rushing into traffic. Lee isn’t too far behind, for when Jessie asks if she would die in combat if Lee photographed her dead body, Lee coldly responds, “What do you think? Not long after, that sentiment is made real; when Lee’s dear mentor and friend Sammy dies by gun wound, we spy her gazing at a picture of his lifeless body, only to delete it out of deep weariness as much as grief.

Some have compared Jessie’s arc to Lou Bloom in “Nightcrawler, the sociopathic videographer who, like Jessie, had the stomach to capitalize on filming death as he dehumanized his subjects for gain. But a closer comparison might be the grizzled director in Jordan Peele’s Nope (Michael Wincott) or Sammy in “The Fabelmans (Gabriel Labelle), two movie-makers who can only experience the dangerous reality around them through the lens of their camera, which becomes both a liberating artform and a binding curse. For Lou Bloom, he captures his subjects to climb a nasty capitalist ladder, but for these other characters, it’s an innate and deep form of expression. In “Nope, the director can’t help but continue filming the alien Jean Jacket, even if it means his death. In “The Fabelmans, Sammy compulsively imagines himself filming the most intimate and painful family moments. The image has become their reality.

Realizing what “Civil War was doing, my mind drifted to the series of essays Jean Baudrillard wrote for The Guardian, titled “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. In them, Baudrillard infamously argued the war itself did not actually exist as presented in U.S. media outlets like CNN or Fox News but was rather a manipulative simulacra of a real atrocity presented as an illusory conflict, curated and exhibited exclusively for television. Many dismissed Baudrillard’s now-famous essays as postmodern nonsense. Still, they’ve proven prophetic in capturing the twisted perceptions of an increasingly image-dominated society, from how other conflicts are shown in the media to the internet. Baudrillard’s essays came to mind not because they speak to the civil war in Garland’s apocalyptic nightmare of future America but because they demonstrate the power of images to overtake a concrete flesh-and-bone reality, to disguise the verisimilitude of the real world with the temptation of phantom, pictorial creations.

That friction between a neutral objective reality and Jessie and Lee’s haunted images is manifested stylistically, too. Garland intercuts verite-style camerawork with “still photographs captured in-film by our duet of photographers, splicing frames of their subjective points of view inter-reeled into the film’s visual grammar. This is a clue because, like Sammy Fabelman, Jessie seems to need her camera to express herself, even her affection. When Jessie first meets Lee –– a woman she admires –– she takes her portrait without Lee’s knowledge. Later, when the press team finds a conspicuously chill town, rather than relaxedly trying on dresses at a cozy boutique, Jessie coaxes Lee into trying on a dress for yet another portrait.

As “Civil War reaches its climax, Jessie’s two primary subjects, portraits of Lee and moments of bloodshed and death, join as one in the halls of the battle-scarred White House. Jessie, in heated fixation to get the best shots of the ultra-violence around her, walks into the path of gunfire, and Lee predictably rushes to shield the hits and is killed. Rather than freezing in shock or horror as her mentor dies in front of her, Jessie’s eyes are pulled into her viewfinder, with Garland serving up an exhibition-worthy series of mortuary portraiture, capturing each nano-second of Lee’s death one tragic frame at a time. From there, Jessie and Joel, elated at their proximity to their prize, leave Lee’s bloodied body behind them and march on for their quote and photograph of the defeated president in heartless mercenary.

By the end of Civil War, Jessie and Joel have stopped being able to connect with what’s happening around them without aestheticizing it first. This is tragically close to how most of us engage with the world around us, replacing their addictive drive for scoop quotes, viewfinder, and photographs with glowing quadrilaterals featuring CNN, MSNBC, Fox, r/politics, or doom scrolling TikTok, and Twitter, mainlining us aestheticized violence, love, hate, and the world-at-large through our screens first and reality second. Rather than asking, How could this happen?” under the guise of gallant journalism, “Civil War instead prompts, If it did, how would we react? The answer seems to be the irresistible temptation of grotesque spectacle, where our souls get forever lost in a matrix of feeding our screens at the expense of our basic humanity.

Have you seen “Civil War” yet? What did you think of it? Please let us know in the comments section below or on Next Best Picture’s Twitter account.

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Brendan Hodges
Brendan Hodges
Culture writer. Bylines at Roger Ebert, Vague Visages and The Metaplex. Lover of the B movie and prone to ramble about aspect ratios at parties.

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