Alex Garland’s Civil War Explores the Impact of Images in a Polarized America | Review

How "Civil War" uses photography to challenge viewers' reality perceptions
Civil War (2024) - Directed by Alex Garland


Civil War (2024)
Directed by Alex Garland

Although he started as a writer and screenwriter, Alex Garland is a director who has always primarily worked with images. In his almost scientific studio approach to sci-fi stories and worlds, the creator of Ex Machina loves to focus his narratives on distorted reality perceptions, the ambiguity of images, and the deception of our certainties: what we see in Alex Garland’s films is never what it seems at first glance. In this sense, the layered and complex images of his films represent one of the most interesting reflections on the perception of reality in a modernity often retouched, filtered, and artificial. It is therefore not surprising that at the heart of Civil War there is a group of photojournalists crushed by the moral weight of finding the right angle to objectively report an apocalyptic scenario.

In a future very close to our present, both temporally and politically, America is in the hands of extremist groups that have turned the United States into a war zone. Among armed militias of fanatics, hidden snipers, hanging bodies, and mass graves, a team of journalists will try to reach Washington to secure a final interview with the president, who is barricaded inside the White House. It is a journey with an almost documentary feel, starting with a (new) attack in New York and ending with tanks at the Capitol: at the center, an America devastated by extremist polarizations and the decay of Western democracy.

Civil War is a succession of war scenarios that we are constantly bombarded with, this time set in a context more familiar and less distant from our idea of everyday life. In this sense, it is a visually powerful film, capable of reaching truly terrifying moments of violence. And it is no coincidence that Civil War is also, among Garland’s works, the most “simple,” direct, and in some ways less ambiguous. In a contemporary era made of almost always retouched, decontextualized, or artificially generated images, where the gap between reality and its representation has never been so wide, working on the ambiguity of perception almost makes no sense anymore. Instead, trying to recreate a direct link and a dialogue between reality and images becomes, from this perspective, a political act.

Photographer Lee (a masterful Kirsten Dunst) wants to be an objective witness to the events she encounters on her journey. She constantly risks her life to try to crystallize her own perspective, to find meaning in what she sees and, above all, to convey it to the rest of the world. In Civil War, photographs punctuate the narrative, representing at the same time foreign bodies and the heart of everything. Just like the photojournalists, the images themselves seem to be constantly searching for a role within the story. The moral weight of being able to change the reading and perspective of history that haunts the protagonists is impeccably managed by Garland’s direction, which is close and engaging in relation to the events it narrates, yet also deliberately cold and detached so as to never overly guide the viewer’s interpretation and meaning.

Civil War thus proves to be one of the most lucid and layered reflections on the role of the image in narrating our time. In a context made of increasingly polarized and extremist opinions and factions, the obsessive search for objectivity soon turns into utopia. Because the meaning of an image is almost always given by the one who views it. The choice to construct a narrative as neutral as possible empowers the viewer’s gaze, transferring onto each of us the moral responsibility to give meaning to what we have just seen.

Francesco Ruzzier

Cineforum, April 21, 2024


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