Hollywood’s New ‘Civil War’ Movie Is Even Worse Than You Think

(Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images)

Gage Klipper Commentary & Analysis Writer
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Alex Garland’s “Civil War” is an insufferable film that takes itself far too seriously. It’s seemingly made for insufferable people who take themselves far too seriously. So of course the critics loved it.

Despite its solid 82% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes, if you go into the theater expecting an action-packed thrill ride of fire and blood, you’re sure to be disappointed. The film’s early marketing suggested a Marvel-esque exercise, an “adrenaline-fueled” battle between good and evil playing out on American city streets. Explosions, guerrilla warfare, refugees, authoritarian speeches — all of the most dystopian (and inflammatory) imagery is already revealed in the two-minute trailer. Even the film’s title is intentionally provocative. Conservatives will go in expecting outrage, while liberals anticipate their most paranoid fever dreams materializing before their eyes. But what the film actually delivers is something much different.

At its core, “Civil War” is an indie art film.  It’s a painfully slow burn, and the pay off is hardly worth it. You’ll likely find yourself bored as the film follows renowned but jaded Reuters war photographer Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst), as she and her team follow the insurrectionist Western Front into D.C. Through Lee, the film becomes less about any civil war, and more a self-indulgent meditation on the role, and responsibility, of journalists. Yes, I told you it’s worse than you thought.

Swashbuckling journos that they are, Lee and her diverse crew embark on a roundabout journey through the war-torn heartland hoping to land an interview with America’s dictatorial president as he holes up in White House. For all its purported realism, the sides are left purposefully ambiguous. The Western Front (WF) is an implausible alliance between California and Texas. After disbanding the FBI, droning Americans and somehow securing a third term, the president seems to be a Trumpy figure (at least as leftists image him) — but it’s the WF that “shoots journalists on sight.” Both sides are conspicuously multiracial. There’s even talk of an “Antifa massacre,” but it remains unclear whether Antifa was the victim or the perpetrator. (RELATED: ‘Oppenheimer’ Is Not A Win For Conservatives)

As the Reuters team surveys and documents the atrocities of war, the film seems to start out with the idea that journalists are meant to rise above the fray. Lee’s character arc plays out in opposition to the young, aspiring war photographer she takes under her wing. Lee cautions her of the moral and emotional distance required to do the job and lectures how it’s “besides the point” whether the subjects they photograph live or die; it’s not their place to intervene. “We record, so other people ask,” she explains. But as the film proceeds, it becomes clear that the cost of journalistic objectivity becomes too much to bear.

“I thought I was sending a warning home,” Lee says to justify all the atrocities she passively witnessed abroad as a war reporter.  “But here we are.”

Caution: spoilers ahead

By the time they reach D.C., Lee is fully disillusioned with the role she’s played. Seeing colleagues die and Americans systematically killing each other for no reason at all, she “lost her faith in the power of journalism,” members of the team remark. So by the time they reach Washington, she’s lost all traces of her calm, collected detachment. She’s noticeably shell-shocked, trailing the WF troops as they storm the White House and summarily execute the president and his cabinet. Her redemption comes from the intervention she swore she would never undertake: she jumps in front of a bullet to save her young protege.

While this might pass as a deep character study for those with a romantic view of journalism, in truth, her character arc is overwhelmingly one dimensional. She starts out as a grimacing Girl Boss with an inflated ego over her role as a noble documentarian. She goes out a grimacing Girl Boss with an even bigger ego, sacrificing her life to a new ideal that one brave journalist can make a difference, or whatever. It’s exceedingly self-indulgent, but ultimately not as smart as it thinks.

With the victory of the WF,  this all points to the true “meaning” of the film: unless journalists choose a side, the insurrectionists will win.

This, of course, has been the alarm bell that our real-life journalists have been ringing since at least 2016. When Trump beat Hillary Clinton, very little energy was directed at uncovering why voters chose Trump. Rather, the media turned inward. They flagellated themselves over giving Trump a platform for his “lies” and “hate” as well as their neutral coverage of Clinton’s email scandal. Trump won because the media didn’t choose a side, or so this self-flattering narrative went. (RELATED: The Best Easter Movie Of All Time Was Made By A Gay, Commie Atheist. No, Really)

In 2020, they were determined not to make the same mistake. Coverage of the Trump administration became unprecedentedly adversarial, as the media aggressively tried to tip the scale in Biden’s favor. Critics became “conspiracy theorists” or “extremists,” dissent became “disinformation.” Yet the self-flagellation continues today, as journos routinely rebuke their own coverage of Biden for being too neutral. It’s wrong to cover Biden’s age and the ailing economy when the existential specter of Trumpism looms large. Despite never being objective, they hilariously lambaste themselves for being too objective.

So the fantasy land of “Civil War” extends far beyond a simple dystopian conflict. Journalists are not objective as the film imagines; they haven’t been for a long time. If a real civil war broke out, they would not embed with insurrectionist forces out of a misguided sense of duty; they would have to have a sense of duty to begin with. But even their turn toward active intervention still doesn’t arise from noble principles, as the film also wrongly posits. This romantic view obscures the fact that most journalists today are simply sycophantic toadies. If the film wanted to paint a realistic portrait of journalists during a civil war, it would show them doing exactly what they’re doing now: huddled up in the D.C., shielding whatever regime controls the awesome power of the federal government — all so they can maintain their vaunted position within it.