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‘Civil War’ is a Reflection on the Role of Media in the Horrors of Armed Conflict

The film serves as a warning for those who pine for a real American Civil War.

Many likely imagined the current Republican Party’s wet dream when this movie was first announced—a civil war pitting red vs. blue in which the lost cause might finally be realized. There isn’t much of that here, fortunately. Can you imagine the online and FOX News meltdowns if they were reminded in an election year how badly their idealogy lost almost two centuries ago? 

Instead, we’re asked to imagine a scenario where California and Texas, typically seen as ideological opposites, team up to take on the rest of America. Sounds pretty out there, right? That’s the premise of Alex Garland‘s latest film, Civil War. While it might not twist your brain into knots like his earlier works, it still packs a punch with its bold storyline and raw depiction of conflict on American soil.

In Civil War, Garland steers away from the sci-fi dazzle of Ex Machina and the surreal horror of Annihilation to focus on a gritty, near-future America where the West has literally gone rogue. The movie doesn’t bother too much with why California and Texas have decided to break away and wage war against the other states. Instead, it thrusts us into the action through the eyes of war journalists, capturing the chaos and carnage that ensues.

Leading the charge are seasoned photographer Lee (played by Kirsten Dunst) and hard-nosed reporter Joel (Wagner Moura), who trek from the ruins of New York City to a besieged Washington, D.C. They’re on a mission to snag an interview with the president (Nick Offerman), but their journey becomes more complicated with the addition of an elderly writer and a young new recruit. This motley crew navigates the perils of a country torn apart, giving the film the vibe of a road movie peppered with horrors that hit all too close to home.

One of the film’s core messages is the essential role of journalism in war. By focusing on reporters documenting the fighting, Garland highlights how crucial it is to share the realities of war with the world, however brutal they may be. Moreover, by not diving too deeply into the reasons behind the conflict, Garland seems to suggest the general futility and senselessness of war. Why they’re fighting doesn’t matter when the consequences are devastating.

Garland, a Brit, views the crumbling of American unity with the detached clarity that perhaps only an outsider can bring. He challenges the narrative of American exceptionalism and poses a stark question: What if the U.S. were just another country tearing itself apart? The familiar settings—a dystopian twist on places we know—add an eerie layer of realism to the story, making it resonate more profoundly and uncomfortably with the audience.

Civil War’s power lies in its stark, unflinching realism. Working again with cinematographer Rob Hardy, Garland opts for a more subdued aesthetic than his previous work that suits the film’s serious tone. It’s a war movie set in a recognizable world, and its impact is all the more potent because of it.

Overall, “Civil War” offers a visceral, emotional experience that keeps you on the edge of your seat. It’s an exploration of a fragmented America, a reflection on the role of media in war, and a poignant commentary on the universal horrors of conflict. While it may not leave you puzzling over its plot twists, it will definitely leave an impression with its intense portrayal of a nation at war with itself and serves as a warning for those who pine for a real American Civil War.

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About the author

J Davis

J is a former rock star, former DJ, comic book & political historian, and novelist who once read the ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper and unlocked the secrets of the universe.

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