By Ethan M. Rogers

Editor in chief

In the early 1900s Russian filmmaker and film theorist Lev Kuleshov developed what is known as the Kuleshov Effect – the origin of the Soviet Montage. For Kuleshov, context was king, he demonstrated the idea that the same shot could evoke different emotions based on the shots surrounding it. It revolutionized filmmaking.

Early Soviet filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein, director of the often copied film Battleship Potemkin, took Kuleshov’s theory and developed what is known as the montage – a series of images that tell a story. Typically used to compress time – but capable of so much more.

Writer-Director Alex Garland’s latest foray into the world of cinema, “Civil War,” perfects the Kuleshov Effect by moving away from the standard Hollywood montage and instilling in his transitional scenes a complete reliance on the emotion the presented images evoke – just as Kuleshov’s own work demonstrated, the images speak for themselves. In doing this, Garland allows, nay, insists that each viewer creates the story within themself. 

“Civil War” is a cinematic masterpiece in that it transcends what is seen on screen and elevates the dialogue of the film to operate on more than one level. This is a film to watch over and over as each new viewing will reveal something new.

To begin with, this movie, touted by the producing studio A24 as, “A journey across a dystopian future America, following a team of military-embedded journalists as they race against time to reach DC before rebel factions descend upon the White House,” is less what it claims to be and more an exploration of humanity as told in a way that only film can – through the combination of image and sound to skip past the conscious mind and get right to the viewer’s emotions.

Unlike what moviegoers might expect, this is not a movie of heroes and villains, of protagonists and antagonists – rather it is a snapshot of human responses to the collapse of their entire world. And the audience is dumped into it head first and without so much as a pat on the backside.

This film could have taken place anywhere – America, like the characters themselves, is merely a stand-in for any country in conflict. Other places in the world live through the type of violence and lawlessness portrayed in the film on a daily basis; Ukraine, Israel, Myanmar, the Sudan. Just a few of the many countries currently experiencing war, firsthand.

Yet this movie was clearly written and edited to appeal to an American audience. The justifications for war, the fact that the President is 14 months into his third term – all allows the American mind to understand and accept the situation as plausible.  

Where most movies coming out of Hollywood rely on scripts, actors and cinematography to tell a story, “Civil War” delves into the use of image and sound to evoke feelings in a way not often seen. 

At one transitional moment in the film, where Garland deftly employs Kuleshov’s theories to beautiful effect, the audience is shown a series of images; an American flag flowing in a light breeze under a clear blue sky, fields of grass, a sprinkler lazily watering a well-kept lawn. Pure Americana, with feelings of nostalgia and patriotism baked right in. Not a word is said nor an actor seen. Pure Kuleshov – allowing the images to speak for themselves.

Underneath this masterful use of image lies the sound. 

The easy sounds to notice are the sounds of battle, of gunfire and explosions. The movie is full of them and they are quite realistic, not the standard over the top movie sounds but the dull pops that make you wonder if you heard a gun or a car backfiring.

Beyond those easy sounds, however, is a discordant hum that plays out during transitional moments. Gun battles take place to Christmas music while a ringing silence threatens to beat its way out of your head once the battle is over. 

Moments of intense stress are calm, it’s the moments in between when death and sadness feel most near.

There is a war, yes, and the audience receives bits and pieces of this as background, as the story behind the story much like the Los Angeles aqueduct project served as a sort of backdrop to the events of Roman Polanski’s 1974 cinematic masterpiece, Chinatown. 

We know there are breakaway states and a President (Nick Offerman) in his third term. We don’t know why or how we got there. We don’t know party affiliations or politics beyond those which are strictly necessary to justify the current state of things. We hear about an Antifa massacre but don’t know if they were the ones massacred or those doing the massacring. There is very little information given, leaving viewers to assign their own backstory, which though not strictly Kuleshov, is definitely an evolution of using the audience’s own emotions to write the story.

Four main characters, all journalists, make up the core focus of the film but they are less an ensemble of heroes and more of a lens through which the audience absorbs and processes events. 

Each character represents some aspect along the continuum of life — Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst,) the world-weary war photographer who has lost her passion for the work. Joel (Wagner Moura,) the party guy writer, always ready with a joint, an Ativan or a pick-up line – he enjoys the work, but doesn’t take it too seriously. Sammy (Stephen McKinley,) the over-aged, overweight journalist holding on to what little dignity he has left, in a world that no longer values him, or the once-great paper he works for. Jesse (Cailee Spaeny,) the hungry young photographer, just starting out, rounds out the group of four.

The characters themselves are not heroes, they are tropes, stock characters upon which the events play out in order to tell the greater story of humanity at war. They are, and are meant to be, caricatures of journalists, masks like the Commedia dell’Arte of Italy or the Noh Theater of Japan. The masks are stripped but the essence of the character beneath is absorbed by the actor.

The group of four finds themselves in a large white Ford with the word “PRESS,” stenciled on the hood and doors traveling from New York City to Washington D.C. to interview a President who is openly hostile toward journalists.

Each person they encounter – another representation of a human response to the whole world collapsing. What do we do? Who do we become? That’s what Garland’s movie seeks to answer. Whether he knew it or not.

Lee, the main lens through which we see, makes the comment that she sent photos back from war torn places as a sort of warning that wasn’t listened to. It seems likely that Garland meant this as a warning and likewise, it won’t be listened to.

There is a fine line to walk when writing about movies in a review – enough of the story to interest people but not so much that it becomes easier to read the story than go watch it. This is a movie to be seen, to be experienced. But it also needs to be talked about. If you haven’t seen this movie, go, watch it in a theater where the sounds and images are grand in scale. After that you can read this next part; because there are spoilers ahead. You have been warned.

Throughout the film Lee is shown to be overwhelmed with what her life has become. She is tired, bitter, angry, frustrated – everything that a person with a lifetime of work in the same field tends to feel when they look back on their career and realize that they have changed nothing, made no real dent in things.

Despite herself, Lee slowly warms to the idea of Jesse. Lee begins to mentor the young photographer. As she does this, Lee slowly begins to slip away. At one point Jess asks Lee if Lee would take her picture if she was killed in front of her. Lee responds with “What do you think?” This line made the ending of the movie inevitable, even if you didn’t see it coming.

By the end of the film Sammy has died and the three remaining journalists make it to Washington D.C. for a secessionist group’s raid on the White House in order to kill the President.

Lee has become frazzled during the battle. She withdraws into herself. She has lost her edge. With Joel’s help she’s able to recover as the three journalists head into the White House.

Inside the White House a gun battle takes place as a military unit assaults its way through the corridors heading for the Oval Office.

Jesse has become increasingly daring, constantly being pulled back by soldiers to keep her out of the way and out of the line of fire. She has become what she always wanted to be – a fearless war photographer.

Jesse steps off the wall, away from the soldiers and cover, away from any sort of protection. She stands in the middle of a hallway leading into the Oval Office. No matter what, she’s going to get the shot.

Lee runs out and knocks Jesse down. She doesn’t tackle her, merely knocks her out of the way. She replaces the young photographer, standing in the middle of the hallway where Jesse had stood. She is shot, and Jesse takes the picture as Lee dies.

Lee wanted to die, she wanted to give Jesse that photo – it was a passing of the baton, Lee was done and ready to move on, Jesse was just beginning. Lee shared a name with Lee Miller, Jesse shared a passion and a closeness with Lee – presumably Jesse will grow old and die and someone will appear, in one form or another, to carry on the work. They represent every war photographer at the end and beginning of their career and should be seen as such rather than looked at as individuals. And, yet, they are that too. They achieve both simultaneously. They are the cycle of life, the new replacing the old, ad infinitum.

The message seems to be that all of this has happened before and all of this will happen again. No one will heed the warnings. And there will always be someone there to witness the events.

Ethan M. Rogers