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Photojournalism and Alex Garland’s Civil War

The use of photojournalism in Alex Garland’s film, Civil War, is a brilliant choice in filmmaking. While many commentators have complained about the film’s lack of politics, that is exactly what a ‘good’ photojournalist would do. The film discusses this very point. A note before I get started, this is going to be an absolutely spoiler-free review/discussion so, if you have not seen the film yet, do not worry, I won’t ruin the film for you like my ex did with The Sixth Sense

Kirsten Dunst as Lee photojournalist conflict photographer in Alex Garland's Civil War film

Civil War follows a hardened conflict photographer, Lee (played by Kirsten Dunst), and a reporter, Joel (Wagner Moura), as they travel from New York to Washington D.C. in an attempt to interview the President before secessionist forces take the city. Along the way, they pick up Jesse (Cailee Spaeny), an aspiring photojournalist, with a penchant for shooting film. Lee and Joel start teaching Jesse the ropes of what it’s like to be in actual war zone.

film photography in alex garland's civil war

Jesse learns quickly that being part of an active conflict makes photography a lot more difficult. She has to learn to be aware of her surroundings on a level she has previously never experienced. “I’ve never been so scared in my entire life. And I’ve never felt more alive!” she states after photographing her first gun battle.

One of my few complaints about the movie has to do with Jesse only shooting film on her dad’s Nikon camera. While the film aspect plays a wonderful part in the movie, including the sound of her camera winding film, I feel like she should have a digital camera as well or we should see her changing film. One camera and one roll of film? Not going to be enough. And I say that because the film makes such a big deal about her shooting film, including her developing process.

photojournalism in Alex Garland's civil war film

“Every time I survived a war zone, I thought I was sending a warning home: Don’t do this,”

Lee (played by Kirsten Dunst)

This one line, delivered by Kirsten Dunst, is the entire point Civil War is trying to make. Don’t do this! The violence is no longer happening in some country half way around the world. It is here at home between neighbors. “That dead body? Yeah, I knew that guy in high school…”

I am honestly disappointed and a little flabbergasted at the reviews by actual reporters who state they wish politics played a bigger part in the film. We literally view Civil War through the lenses of these photojournalists and reporters. Do we think they would sit around discussing the politics of a situation they are already immersed in? The pacing of the film would get bogged down in lengthy, and unnecessary to the telling of this particular story, exposition.

Why must everything need to be spelled out for viewers? Introducing politics to this film would dilute the overall message. Instead, we are shown what really happens in conflict zones – violence in its many forms. From organized military engagements to casual atrocities. In more than one scene in the film, it’s made clear that sides don’t actually matter in some cases. You just act according to the situation you are in.

However, the moment you start putting politics behind the actions of characters, viewers begin “taking sides.” They want to see their point-of-view depicted as the “heroes” or they quickly turn against the film/filmmaker for portraying them as a “villain”. The movie forces us to think about what we are watching instead of retreating to the comfort of our own bubble and assign the characters to ‘sides’.

The ‘neutrality’ of the film also reflects the nature of real photojournalism. Don’t believe me? Go watch the final episode of Photographer on Nat Geo with Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Muhammed Muheisen. He goes into great detail about the limits photojournalists must act within. As Lee states, “Once you start asking those questions you can’t stop. So we don’t ask. We record so other people ask.”

I have seen so many comments asking, “What would Texas and California ever have in common?” since these two secessionist states make up the majority of the “Western Forces” in the film. Does it matter? Would any explanation satisfy the audience or would they just have more questions or not take the film seriously because they don’t believe in the validity of the reasoning?

Garland’s film SITS with you. It has been weeks since I watched it and I think about it EVERY DAY. It is well paced, building the tension throughout with visceral and hard hitting imagery. The last fifteen minutes of the movie are an actual onslaught. I highly recommend you check it out.

If you are interested in seeing how realistic the film is, please check out Michael Mann’s documentary series Witness, available on Amazon or via subscription to Max, which follows four real life embedded conflict photographers.

When you are done, find me on Instagram or Threads or leave a comment below so we can discuss what you thought about the photographers of Civil War.

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The Nerdy Photographer

With more than a quarter century as a professional photographer, The Nerdy Photographer's goal is to spread knowledge and laughter throughout the photo industry. Please follow along on social media and subscribe to the podcast.

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