To acquire wisdom, one must observe

‘Civil War’ is a poignant and beautiful story of journalism

I don’t know what the team behind “Civil War” was thinking when they designed the advertising campaign for this movie. Despite what every trailer, tagline and A24 mini-game may lead you to believe, this is neither a war movie nor an action movie. It is a slow-paced character study about the traumas of being a visual journalist, which happens to take place in a war torn United States.

“Civil War” follows four journalists trying to drive from New York City to DC to interview the president. In the background of their journey is an American civil war. The war has been going on for some years—since Texas and California allied and seceded from the rest of the United States. The country has fallen apart and “Civil War,” through a journalistic lens, captures a turning point of that war, a point of no return.

Nearly all criticism I have seen levied against this movie describe it as either a centrist film, refusing to take a side, or an incomplete snippet of a more compelling story. These critiques are both accurate and completely misguided. If you are hoping to watch a firebrand, left vs right, detailed recounting of a country splintering and falling into chaos, watch “Planet of the Apes” or the news. That isn’t the point of this movie. The specific, pedantic timeline that led to war breaking out is not important. “Civil War” could tell the future of any country. It is not an inherently American story, it is not specifically about January 6 or the American brand of Christian nationalism or isolationism or radicalism. It is any governmental dystopia as shown to us by journalists.

And on that note, journalists, generally, don’t provide the public garish, lore heavy, editorialized stories about the entire happenings of a war. Most war journalists and photographers capture small stories, as part of a larger narrative, which aim to be as close to an objective observation as they can be. If “Civil War” is viewed as a movie told in this way, a neutral slice of a much bigger, horrific story, it excels. It did exactly what it was meant to. Sorry, this anti-war movie doesn’t tell you who to root for, you losers. (Criticisms of this movie made by respectable news outlets are making me furious.)

Setting aside the expertly done political and simultaneously apolitical messaging of “Civil War,” this is just a fantastic movie. At its center are four characters, at different points in the same careers, whose personal growth and interpersonal relationships provide the heart of an otherwise dark, disturbing film. These people, all with completely different outlooks on their careers and completely different ways of dealing with the traumatic situations they all face every day, create fascinating and surprisingly wholesome dynamics. The world is falling and it is on this group of people to document its fall. The way they support and advise each other in this grueling task is at best heartwarming and at worst compelling.

The actors taking on these roles fill them very well. I am not the biggest Kirsten Dunst fan, but she plays her character, who could easily come off unlikable or two-dimensional, wonderfully. The same goes for Wagner Moura, who I already love from the show “Narcos.” His character in “Civil War” is often the comic relief, but the stakes behind the character and the emotional moments he goes through were portrayed excellently. Jesse Plemons, who is only in one scene, is the biggest standout of the movie. He is perfect, but he is perfect in everything he’s ever been so, it’s not saying much.

Since this is a film following visual journalists, the visuals of the movie are outstanding. Of course there is quality staged photography which the characters are portrayed as taking, but in addition to that, the cinematography of “Civil War” goes above and beyond. It is ultimately a road trip movie, and shots of scenery they drive through or establishing shots of the monuments they stop at really stand out. The whole movie looks great.

An unexpected effect this cinematography has, is the violence that occurs on screen, the brutality, death and chaos is as well captured as the beauty. This could have led to a visual romanticization of war, but instead made moments of cruelty and evil feel more real and thus more upsetting. The violence isn’t generally excessive and it certainly is not unrealistic—but it is disturbing and certain images will stick with you.

The last point that needs to be made about “Civil War” is that despite its occasionally slower pace, its character focused plot and its complex messaging, this is an entertaining, thrilling watch. Edge of your seat, hitched breathing, feel the need to audibly respond to what just happened on screen type thrilling. The characters who you so quickly form attachments to go through a bunch of wild, traumatic, sometimes near-death experiences, and you just sit there and experience it. Experience normal Americans doing horrible things to beloved characters. It feels a bit awful and I loved every minute of it.

With the amount of (probably all stupid) people who think this movie is bad or hollow, I suspect we have another “Don’t Look Up” on our hands. Which means, I recommend it widely but if you don’t care much for politics or if you are looking for some specific partisan messaging, maybe skip this one.

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