In Alex Garland’s action thriller cameras are a weapon of truth, writes Adrian Pennington.

There’s a scene in Oliver Stone’s 1986 movie Salvador about the country’s chaotic civil war where a photojournalist played by John Savage is killed in the heroic attempt to capture the money shot - or proof - of military bombs falling on the civilian population.


Behind the Scenes: Civil War

The heroic nature of photojournalists and the wider importance of upholding the journalistic quest for truth is Writer-Director Alex Garland’s mission in Civil War - although the lines are blurred. The film’s hero, a veteran war photographer, is among a press pack dreaming of the ultimate money shot: the capture or execution of the US President.

Garland has said he intentionally wanted to embody the film’s action through the grammar of images that people may have seen on the news. This grammar is less cinematic and more documentary-like, a tactic also used by Stone on Salvador and filmmakers Roland Joffé and Chris Menges on The Killing Fields, another film about war correspondents fighting for truth and justice.

Room to manoeuvre

The cinematography reflects the vérité feel of actual combat, eschewing the clean camerawork that Garland and regular Director of Photography (DP) Rob Hardy have used on previous films like Annihilation.


Kirsten Dunst as Lee in Civil War

While the main camera used is a Sony Venice, they shot a lot of the action scenes using the DJI Ronin 4D, a relatively inexpensive camera costing around £6,000.

“I wanted something truthful in the camera behaviour, that would not over-stylise the war imagery,” explains Garland in a feature he wrote for Empire. “All of which push you towards handheld. But we didn’t want it to feel too handheld, because the movie needed at times a dreamlike or lyrical quality.”

“That more handheld look when it comes to combat stuff [is] in my mind the way I view things,” comments Ray Mendoza, the film’s military advisor. “Watching these handhelds — it’s more visceral.”

The cautionary fable takes place in a near-future America that has split into multiple factions embroiled in a civil war. The Western Forces, an armed alliance of states rebelling against the federal government, is days away from pushing the capitol to a surrender. In the hopes of getting a final interview with the President (Nick Offerman), Lee (Kirsten Dunst), a veteran combat photographer travels 857 miles across the country to the White House with an aspiring photographer named Jessie (Cailee Spaeny).

Garland chose to shoot the $50m movie chronologically in part to capture something more truthful in the actors’ performances. The schedule dictated that they shoot quickly, and move the camera quickly, which also lent itself to a more manoeuvrable camera. Very few shots in the film use tracks and dollies. The crew also mounted eight small cameras on Lee and Jessie’s press van.

“It does something incredibly useful,” Garland writes of the DJI Ronin 4D. “It self-stabilises, to a level that you control — from silky-smooth to vérité shaky-cam,” Garland writes. “To me, that is revolutionary in the same way that Steadicam was once revolutionary. It’s a beautiful tool. Not right for every movie, but uniquely right for some.”

Homage to photojournalism

The point about a combat photographer is that they have to put themselves in a position where they can see the thing that is happening, otherwise they can’t take the photo.


Behind the Scenes: Civil War

The small size and integrated self-stabilisation of the DJI Ronin 4D meant that “the camera behaves weirdly like the human head,” Garland adds. “It sees ‘like’ us. That gave Rob and I the ability to capture action, combat, and drama in a way that, when needed, gave an extra quality of being there.”

While the camera is not certified as an IMAX camera, Civil War (like The Creator) is presented for IMAX screens because it used IMAX post-production tools and a sound design suitable for the giant format.

Garland repurposes the images, tools, and euphemisms of modern war — airstrikes, civilian targets, collateral damage — and projects them onto American soil. Familiar and iconic images, from the streets of New York to the nation’s Capitol, are radically recontextualised, like the eerily empty streets of London in Garland’s screenplay for the 2002 zombie film 28 Days Later.

As the son of political cartoonist [Nicolas Garland], Garland grew up around journalists. Lee and Jessie, whose last name in the film is Cullen, are named after two war photographers whose work Garland admires: Lee Miller and Don McCullin.

Iconic images from the Vietnam War of a young girl who had been burned by napalm, of a Buddhist monk who set himself on fire, and the execution of a VC soldier [in a Pulitzer Prize winning shot by Eddie Adams] “became reasons why journalism did have an effect and changed the public mood,” Garland said after the film’s premiere at SXSW.

“That’s partly why photojournalists are at the heart of this film,” he said. “Often modern journalism of that sort is videoed, rather than stills. But journalism can be fantastically powerful, provided that it’s being listened to. And one of the really interesting things about the state that the US, the UK, and many others are in right now is that the warnings are all out there on all sides of the political divide, but for some reason, they don’t get any traction.”

“Is it just that we’re not able to absorb information because of the position we already hold?”

Hence, he decided to take such polarization out of Civil War to the point of refusing to engage in how it started – and instead tried to find points of agreement. It is “de-politicized for a political reason.”

Modern warfare

It is exceptionally difficult however to make a war movie that is, in fact, anti-war.


Behind the Scenes: Civil War

“War movies find it very, very difficult to not sensationalise violence,” Garland says in A24’s production notes. “Most of the anti-war movies in a way are not really anti-war movies. They have so much to do with camaraderie and courage. It’s not that they are trying to be romantic, but they just become romantic. They sort of can’t help it because courage is romantic and tragedy in a way is romantic.”

He points to films like Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957) or the harrowing Soviet war epic Come and See (1985) as rare exceptions.

So, in Civil War, when characters are shot, they don’t have squibs on them spouting fountains of blood. You don’t see big blood splatters up the wall behind them. They just fall down. Blood then leaks across the ground if they’ve been lying there for the right amount of time.

“There’s nothing really glamorous about a mass grave,” he said. “There’s nothing really romantic about it.”

Similarly, they deployed blanks for gunfire (rather than purely reliant on audio FX). These make a loud noise, like a .50 calibre gun, that people react to instinctively by flinching.

The film’s explosive denouement featuring a siege of the Capitol had to have each beat choreographed to be as tactically authentic as possible. Filmed on soundstages in Atlanta, it involved 50 stunt people, cars, tanks, explosions and gunfire. The aim was to put the audience in the middle of the battleground, surrounded by chaos.

“We’d have a map of the area sketched out, and we would be drawing arrows and drawing little cones over where a camera was positioned,” Garland explains. “You could put together quite sophisticated choreography: this tank will move here, as this Humvee drives forward fast towards the other Humvees, and as it passes, that’s when these soldiers will move down. We would just run that choreography again and again and again.”

He gave Mendoza free rein to choreograph the sequence, so long as nothing was embellished. “I hired a lot of veterans, and it’s great to see them move through it, get into the scene of it,” Mendoza says. “It’s pretty accurate just even from the dialogue, to the mood, and a lot of the gun fighting.”