The horror of Civil War

  • Themes: Film

Alex Garland's latest film Civil War is less about political violence than about the power of the image, and its displacement of the word, as the most powerful motivating factor of our time, and the essential unit of information.

Still from Civil War (2024) directed by Alex Garland.
Still from Civil War (2024) directed by Alex Garland. Credit: BFA / Alamy Stock Photo

Two sets of sounds define Alex Garland’s latest film, Civil War: the crack, bang of rifles and the click, snap of the camera. The action begins in New York – the city looks calm, its skyscrapers glittering in the evening light, but smoke rises ominously from the suburbs. The Western Forces, an army loyal to two secessionist states, an unlikely coalition of California and Texas, are advancing towards Washington DC. An embattled President addresses the nation, or what’s left of it. Four journalists set out from New York to cover the final days of the conflict: a veteran, weary print journalist, played by Stephen McKinley Henderson, who has often worked with Garland, and a younger colleague, Wagner Moura’s Joel. They are joined by a veteran war photographer, Lee Smith. Kirsten Dunst delivers a granite, fearsome performance here. They are joined by Cailee Spaeny’s Jessie, a wannabe photojournalist, clutching her camera, who wants to follow her into the business.

Brad East, an American theologian, writes: ‘Civil War is not about American politics, American polarization, impending American secession, or even Trump. It’s not a post–January 6 fever dream/allegory/parable. It’s not a liberal fable or a conservative one. Instead, Civil War is a film about the press.’ I’d nuance that: it’s a film about the press, yes, but it’s especially a film about the power of the image, and its displacement of the word, as the most powerful motivating factor of our time, and the essential unit of information. The New York Times is mentioned only once in passing, dismissively. The two male broadsheet journalists don’t appear to write anything down. Why even bother filing? By contrast, Lee is portrayed desperately trying to send her photos for publication, destination unclear, over flaky hotel Wi-Fi. It matters that her photos get published.

Joel claims he wants to land the last interview with the president in the dying days of the Republic. But when do they reach the White House? The President’s last words, which are not even properly recorded by the reporter, are just the whimpering of a scared man, three-gun barrels pointing at his chest. Joel doesn’t get the killer quote, but one of the soldiers shoots the president several times and turns to Jessie’s camera. Click. Snap. An iconic  shot: that’s the killer image.

Although the film nods to great quest films, such as Apocalypse Now, with its bouncy, zhuzhy soundtrack cut with ultra-violent setpieces, don’t be deceived. This is very much a return to zombie territory. Garland was after all the screenwriter for Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. In Civil War, Garland draws on unheimlich horror tropes: apparently brave, iron-willed characters suddenly become scared, as if haunted by the premonition of their own death, before being swiftly dispatched. In 28 Days Later, the familiar is immersed in the strange: a black cab tracks through abandoned council estates, a sole figure wanders through an empty London piled high with detritus, life amid so much death. Like Nosferatu, who lives through pollution and disease, death acquires a half-life in the sublime symbol of the zombie. In Civil War, some of the same effect is built up through stand-alone images: a pit of bodies clothed in the latest American fashion, new sneakers smeared with blood and dust.

One of the early pioneers of wildlife photography understood the power of photography: its miraculous capacity to still and stop the world, and to distort it. Carl Akeley, known as the ‘father of modern taxidermy’, a keen hunter and friend of the US President Theodore Roosevelt, was also a great innovator in camera technology. ‘To have even a fair chance of following the action with a camera you need one that you can aim up, down, or in any direction with about the same ease that you can point a pistol,’ he wrote. ‘My camera [resembles] a machine gun… a panoramic device which enables one to swing it all about, much as one would swing a swivel gun, following the natural line of vision.’ In Civil War, the viewer sees the war photographer from multiple perspectives, both as the artist and the subject, hunter and hunted: most of the time, Garland’s video camera looks straight down the lens of Lee or Jessie’s cameras and you hear the snap of the shutter, and see the photograph develop instantaneously. But at key moments, Garland switches the perspective. Now Garland is filming the photographer: first you see the mechanics unfold, not unlike the skill of a sniper, the stilling of the shoulders, the steady hands. (There is a memorable scene with a real-life sniper that makes the comparison irresistible). Then you see the expressions of the photographers. First, tranquil, engrossed in the technical process, then curious, intent, flushed with desire. There, I’ve got my shot.

Akeley is queasy about the relationship between shooting animals for pleasure and shooting film: ‘While I have found but little enjoyment in shooting any kind of animal, I confess that in hunting elephants and lions under certain conditions I have always felt that the animal had sufficient chance in the game to make it something like a sporting proposition. On the other hand, much of the shooting that I have had to do in order to obtain specimens for museum collections has had none of this aspect at all and has made me feel a great deal like a murderer.’ If the camera is like ‘a machine gun’, as Akeley suggests, then the photographer operates on a lower moral plane than the hunter. In the opening stages of Civil War, Lee Smith is shown having flashbacks to wars past, where she is pictured, her face hidden by a camera, click, click, click, right up close to a man being burnt alive, flesh made celluloid, life-in-death.

Civil War is replete with incredibly realistic battle scenes and captures some of the surprising fluidity of allegiances characteristic of civil conflict past. Throughout the film, it is eerily difficult to work out who is on which side, who is fighting whom and why. A further jarring touch: the journalists eventually encounter the main battlegroups of the Western Forces, who look every inch as well-trained and organised as the US military on exercises. Far more disturbing and subversive is Garland’s implied commentary about our contemporary culture of images. In such a culture, deep literacy is in retreat and politics has been relegated to a mental sub-division of the ever-vibrant advertising industry, which succeeds by selling the right image to the right audience at the right time. The protagonists of Civil War  are desperate to succeed in those terms. And they do, magnificently so. But at what cost?


Alastair Benn