Real Civil Wars Are Much Worse Than ‘Civil War.’ So Is Covering Them

Real Civil Wars Are Much Worse Than ‘Civil War.’ So Is Covering Them
Andrew MacDonald, Kirsten Dunst, Alex Garland and Allan Reich pose for photographers at a screening of “Civil War,” in London, March 26, 2024 (Invision photo by Scott A. Garfitt via AP Images).

Since its debut in mid-April, Alex Garland’s movie, “Civil War,” has become a box office smash, while also triggering an enormous amount of interest and commentary among political scientists. The film is an ear-splitting, grisly portrayal of life in the U.S. countryside as a civil war roils the country. Seen through the eyes of a team of Reuters reporters and photojournalists bent on capturing an interview with the soon-to-be deposed U.S. president, the film is less about war and more about war journalists and the events they cover.

As such, the film has been both hailed for its realism and criticized for its muddled political messaging. Both views contain assumptions about how a U.S. civil war might unfold, acknowledging some facts but missing others. They also mostly focus on the film’s “political realism” or lack thereof and ignore what it teaches audiences about the role of the media as both observers and participants in conflicts. Here are some things the film gets right and wrong about civil wars and war reporting, based on political science.

First, several commentators have noted the accurate, if caricatured, representation of war journalists as simultaneously traumatized veterans and thrill-seekers. The film captures the tension between these journalists’ reckless, adrenaline-fueled camaraderie and deep moral professionalism. But more deeply, it portrays a characteristic of civil wars that Chris Hedges captures in his book, “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning”: the notion that living through terrifying circumstances makes people feel alive and connected to one another.

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