Race, Trauma, and the Search for Truth in Alex Garland’s “Civil War”

Race, Trauma, and the Search for Truth in Alex Garland’s “Civil War”

Alex Garland’s 2024 dystopian thriller, Civil War, is more than just a genre film.  Set in a fractured America ravaged by a second civil war, the film uses this backdrop to explore potent themes of racial injustice, the burden of historical trauma, and the fight for truth in a world shrouded in propaganda. 

Anchored by a powerful performance from Kirsten Dunst as renowned war photographer Lee Smith, Civil War compels viewers to confront the uncomfortable realities of racial inequality and the silencing of marginalised voices.

The America depicted in Civil War seems at first to be stark departure from reality, yet chillingly, it seems like it’s possible.  The country has fractured along regional and racial lines, with the authoritarian federal government pitted against a loose confederation of Western states. While not explicitly stated as a racial conflict, the underlying tension is clear. 

The government is led by a seemingly unhinged president (Nick Offerman, with allusions to Trump). Critics have criticised the film for not taking sides, but the ambiguity is the nature of war correspondence – taking sides means getting involved rather than observing, so Garland’s choice to tell the story without taking sides seems an obvious choice.

Lee is from Colorado, a state presumably aligned with the Western forces. However, her presence as a journalist within the war-torn nation raises questions about her privilege and objectivity. The film doesn’t shy away from exploring the inherent complexities of race and representation in war journalism. Lee, despite her good intentions, remains an outsider within the communities she documents. Her interactions with a Black family fleeing the violence highlight this disconnect.  Despite a shared desire for peace, their experiences and perspectives remain vastly different. Her disconnect from what is going on in front of her behind the lens of her camera is allegorically all of us.

The film weaves in subtle yet disturbing references to America’s historical treatment of Black people.  Lee carries a camera with a racist caricature on its strap, a constant reminder of the nation’s past sins. When she encounters a group of Black refugees, their fear and distrust are palpable. These details, while fleeting, paint a picture of a society still grappling with the legacy of racism, a wound that continues to fester even amidst the chaos of a new conflict.

One of the most potent themes explored in Civil War is the struggle for truth amidst a government hellbent on controlling the narrative.  Lee, a seasoned war photographer, understands the power of imagery and its ability to expose atrocities.  The film explores the danger of propaganda, with the government heavily controlling media access and information.  We see this censorship firsthand when Lee attempts to interview a government official.  His evasive responses and the sterile environment underscore the suffocating control exerted by the regime.

The presence of Anya (Sonoya Mizuno), and Asian journalist also embedded in the conflict, further emphasises the importance of diverse voices.  As a foreigner, she may offer a more objective perspective on the conflict.  Unfortunately, her fate remains ambiguous, leaving unanswered questions about the silencing of dissent and the consequences of seeking truth in a tyrannical state.

Kirsten Dunst delivers a career-defining performance as Lee Smith.  Her character goes through an important arc from jaded and cynical, but when the group encounter a young photographer Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) Lee begins to see the conflict through her eyes and becomes in the process both reluctant mentor and both stoic and vulnerable. We see her resolve being worn down by trauma — capturing the emotional toll of witnessing war firsthand.

Haunted by the horrors she has seen, Lee grapples with the ethical dilemmas of a journalist caught in a conflict with no clear moral high ground. Dunst’s performance allows viewers to experience the war through her eyes, confronting the brutality and the human cost of such a conflict.

Civil War is not a film that offers easy answers.  It presents a bleak vision of a fractured America, a society grappling with its past while hurtling towards an uncertain future. Yet, amidst the darkness, there are glimpses of hope. The bond that forms between Lee and a young aspiring photographer, Jessie, suggests the potential for future generations to learn from the mistakes of the past.

Ultimately, Civil War is a film that demands to be discussed.  It isn’t an easy watch, it’s confronting and also demands your attention.

The film’s exploration of race, trauma, and the search for truth resonate deeply with contemporary discussions about social justice and the responsibility of the media.   While the film may provoke discomfort, it is precisely in that discomfort that we find the opportunity for reflection and potentially, change.  


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