What ‘Civil War’ Gets Right (and Wrong) About Photojournalism

A woman with blonde hair sits in a vehicle's driver seat, looking through the viewfinder of a dslr camera aimed out the window. The vehicle's interior is visible.

Civil War eschews the typical trappings of a combat action movie by turning the lens not toward the soldiers but to the photographers capturing them. And while it excels in some aspects of its portrayal, it falters when it comes to the big stuff.

Spoiler warning: There are spoilers for Civil War in this article.

Civil War, written and directed by Alex Garland, known for films Ex Machina and 28 Days Later, has received largely positive reviews.

“Rarely have I seen a movie that made me so acutely uncomfortable or watched an actor’s face that, like [Kirsten] Dunst’s, expressed a nation’s soul-sickness so vividly that it felt like an X-ray,” a review from The New York Times reads.

Civil War is gripping and beautifully shot. After all, it would be a bit insulting to the subject matter for it to be anything less than visually stunning, AI-generated image allegations aside.

A soldier in camouflage gear cautiously moves through a dimly lit room, aiming a rifle with an attached flashlight, amidst scattered papers and overturned furniture.

In some ways, it honors its photojournalist subjects well in the narrative. There are small details, for instance, when Dunst’s character Lee struggles to upload her work due to the hotel’s poor wifi, as photojournalist Esther Lin points out to PetaPixel. Lin has worked as a professional photographer for 17 years, focusing on covering combat sports like mixed martial arts and boxing. She tells PetaPixel that while she isn’t a war photographer, this line of work puts her up close with a great deal of violence.

“And it does weigh on you,” Lin continues. “It is hard to shoot, but you do anyway because it’s your job but also because like Joel says, it’s a thrill. You feel alive and scared at the same time.”

Overall, Lin tells PetaPixel she loved the film and was significantly affected by it. She said Civil War does a great job of capturing the ups and downs of journalism: the way the characters keep shooting, keep documenting, the competition between media outlets, the tendency to blindly go for the shot at the expense of others.

Two people wearing protective helmets and vests, labeled "press," attentively watch something in a park-like setting. one holds a camera, ready to photograph.

An elderly male journalist sits in a white van marked with "press" on the door, looking out the window with a serious expression. The van appears weathered and dusty.

Yet, the photojournalists of Civil War may move too blindly, especially when motivated by their professional aspirations.

“Writer and director Alex Garland clearly has enormous respect for the skill and dedication photojournalists require to work in dangerous situations like the civil war portrayed in the film,” PetaPixel‘s Jordan Drake notes. “However, there is a clear ambition and ego that is also constantly demonstrated. None of the journalists shown express any interest in their photos changing support for, or the outcome of the war. Instead, the priority is on capturing the most powerful image or winning a Pulitzer. Their safety, or the military operations going on around them, are secondary to their pursuit of great images.”

Safe practices specifically seem to elude the characters. Much of this falls on cub reporter Jessie, played by Cailee Spaeny. Her inexperience leads her to frequent missteps that endanger her or others. And while it’s somewhat understandable that she’s still learning the ropes, Jessie knows enough about photography to go on about lauded photojournalist Lee Miller, making it less reasonable that she would fail to understand basic safety protocols.

There are minor inaccuracies for the sake of movie magic. Lin points out that the male characters never seem to need a shave, and no one ever seems to worry about low camera batteries. But Civil War‘s greatest infidelities with truth are more philosophical.

A woman with a camera around her neck stands in a misty, amber-lit scene, looking thoughtfully to the side. She carries a camera bag and wears a vest over a long-sleeve shirt.

Garland makes efforts to emphasize the job’s responsibilities: document, don’t get involved, don’t take sides. But this ethos falls apart a bit during the film.

As Drake points out, none of the journalists viewers follow have any tangible effect on the world around them, save for an elderly photographer “who abandons his journalistic objectivity” when he kills a man to save his peers.

Two women crouch beside a white car with professional lettering, appearing distressed amidst a chaotic background with debris flying. One wears a brown jacket and the other a reflective work vest.

“The audience is clearly meant to see this as a heroic act, even though it is the one time a journalist breaks the ethics of neutrality,” Drake adds.

It’s unclear who this nameless character, played by actor Jesse Plemons, is. He’s in army fatigues and bright red sunglasses, but viewers never learn which side he’s fighting on or if he’s even fighting for any side at all beyond his own seemingly psychopathic tendencies. But, he’s killed by one of the journalists just the same.

A male and a female journalist equipped with helmets labeled "press" and bulletproof vests stand near a building window, observing cautiously with a camera in hand.

Journalistic ethics is rarely an easy conversation, the ideals of which continue to be debated today. The characters’ struggles and evolution of their place within the conflict, even as documentarians feel true to life in that sense. In one scene, Jesse asks veteran photojournalist Lee if she would take her photo if she died. Lee responds by asking, “What do you think?” The viewer is left to their own interpretation.

Later, when one of the group members dies, we see Lee take the photograph but later delete it when looking back.

“The moment where Lee deletes the photo, I started bawling because I understand that feeling of capturing a gorgeous but utterly devastating image for you, personally, and deciding it’s not for anyone else,” Lin tells PetaPixel.

Once again, Civil War struggles with the why. Why do the photojournalists do the job? As Drake pointed out, Garland holds photojournalists in high regard but falls short of truly uncovering the more profound calling beyond the thrills and career ambitions.

The character Joel, a regular journalist without a camera, is determined to get an interview with the president, who views journalists as equal to enemy combatants. However, the only reason given is the rarity of securing such an interview. The president last spoke to journalists a few months ago, and with the Western Forces closing in, there’s likely little time to talk to him. Joel is an adrenaline seeker more than he is a journalist.

A woman wearing a press vest stands in a dimly lit urban area with emergency responders and vehicles in the background. She appears focused and serious.

Photojournalists have long been crucial in shaping the world’s perception of conflict. However, the journalists we see are largely uninterested in this. They discuss it, but their actions never communicate a true desire to show people the war, to make people care.

“Neither of the warring factions will change their perspective based on compelling photographs, and both photojournalists played by Kirsten Dunst and Cailee Spaeny acknowledge that their families are just pretending that the war is not happening,” Drake notes. “Neither expresses that their photos might convince such people about the gravity of what is happening on the front lines, and the future ramifications of the conflict.”

Maybe the most haunting truth in Civil War comes at the end. Soldiers pose, smiling, in the midst of a gruesome scene. This image, devoid of empathy and humanity, is merely a reflection of how dehumanizing conflict can be. It echoes photographs out of Abu Ghraib, which when released in 2004, showed soldiers’ gleeful expressions among abused prisoners.

For inspiration about how war photos can change the world, it may be best to look away from the screen and to the war journalists among us.

Nick Ut, the photographer of the haunting Pulitzer Prize-winning image “Napalm Girl,” recalls the impact of the photograph’s publication. Ut calls the photograph “Terrible War.”

A historical black-and-white photo showing a group of children and adults running on a road. one child appears particularly distressed. smoke billows in the background, and soldiers walk behind.
Photo by Nick Ut for Associated Press.

“The next day, there were anti-war protests all over the world,” he told PetaPixel last year. “Japan, London, Paris… Every day after that, people were protesting in Washington, DC, outside the White House. ‘Napalm Girl’ was everywhere.”

Even if Civil War doesn’t necessarily venerate the photos that conflict photographers capture, it at least captures the horrors of conflict and its impact on people, soldiers and civilians alike.

Image credits: A24