The Guide #134: Civil War is latest example of Hollywood’s love affair with journalism

<span>Hot for the press … Kirsten Dunst as a grizzled war photographer in a scene from Civil War.</span><span>Photograph: Murray Close/AP</span>
Hot for the press … Kirsten Dunst as a grizzled war photographer in a scene from Civil War.Photograph: Murray Close/AP

Civil War, Alex Garland’s drama imagining an internecine ding-dong in a near-future America, is many things: a terrifically tense action flick; a gore-stained warning of the dangers of polarisation and the lengths humans can go to when they think they’re on the side of right; a reminder of the often overlooked talents of Kirsten Dunst (pictured above); a daring piece of cinematic provocation, coming as it does mere months before a particularly fraught US presidential election; and a film that ever so slightly chickens out of taking a side when it comes to the real-life open wounds dividing the country.

But more than anything, when watching Civil War I was struck by how much it serves as a perfume-scented love letter to journalists. The film follows a group of journos – Dunst’s grizzled, Lee Miller-ish war photographer also named Lee, Wagner Moura as her daredevil Reuters colleague Joel, Stephen McKinley Henderson as New York Times veteran Jessie and Cailee Spaeny as green-about-the gills snapper Sammy. They are all documenting the dying days of a conflict between forces loyal to the president, and a rebel alliance of secessionists.

Lee and Joel are set on getting an interview with the president in Washington before he is deposed, but do to so they have to chart a dangerous path through government- and rebel-held territory. Cue encounters with militia men and snipers, some friendly, some very unfriendly (the film includes one of most fingernail-erodingly tense scenes I’ve ever seen – and I’ve seen Uncut Gems). Throughout it all the group try to remain studiously neutral, too busy doing their jobs to take a side – but inevitably they engage in the odd moment of pyrotechnic, slo-mo action heroism.

If you squinted really hard at Civil War, which is in cinemas from today, you might just about be able to glimpse a critique of war-journalism bravado – that these people are so ferociously preoccupied with getting the killer shot, that they have forgotten the human stakes of the conflict in which they’re embedded. That though doesn’t exactly align with Garland’s own thoughts on the film: his father was a newspaper cartoonist and he told the Guardian that “serious journalism needs protecting, because it’s under attack, so I wanted to make those people ‘heroes’ to put them front and centre”. The many lingering, golden-hour shots of Dunst looking pensively into the middle distance underline that Civil War sees its characters as on the side of the angels.

Garland’s effort isn’t the only recent release positioning journalists as its hero-protagonists. Over on Netflix, there’s Scoop, a soapy dramatisation of the car-crash Prince Andrew/Emily Maitlis Newsnight interview and the lengths that the programme’s producer Sam McAlister went to get it. (As Peter Bradshaw points out in his review, your mileage may vary on whether this constitutes a scoop.) The film is briskly entertaining and boasts strong performances from Rufus Sewell as Andrew and Billie Piper as McAlister (we’ll gloss over Gillian Anderson’s mannered Maitlis), but frequently lapses into derivativeness: there’s the obligatory journo trope, enshrined in cinema since the days of All the President’s Men, of the reporter doggedly going after a story that none of their colleagues will go anywhere near.

Scoop and Civil War cap a ripe period for film and TV celebrating the free press, both print and broadcast. There was the Oscar-winning (and genuinely great) Spotlight, about the Boston Globe’s investigation of historic child abuse within the Catholic church; She Said about the New York Times reporters who broke the Harvey Weinstein story; and The Post, Steven Spielberg’s slightly pompous account of the Washington Post’s attempts to publish the Pentagon Papers. In the UK we’ve had Philomena, about journalist Martin Sixsmith’s work in reuniting Magdalene laundries worker Philomena Lee with the son taken away from her; and the Julian Assange drama The Fifth Estate, a valiant but doomed attempt to make working at the Guardian look glamorous.

On the TV side of things, there is Apple’s much-lampooned The Morning Show (starring Reese Witherspoon, above), which manages to be both trashy as hell and also incredibly pompous about the importance of broadcast news. And who could forget The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin’s preposterous series about a fictional cable news station, responsible for some of the most unintentionally hilarious scenes ever broadcast on TV (“You’re a fucking newsman, Don! If I ever tell you otherwise, you punch me in the face!”).

These fawning portrayals might be good for inflating the egos of effing newsmen and women, but it does all feel a little detached from reality. Back on planet Earth, only politicians and advertising executives rank below the press in terms of public trust (we’re less trusted than estate agents, for pity’s sake!). If Hollywood used the public’s view of the media as a benchmark, journalists would be the moustache-twirling villains of most films, yet negative depictions – Jake Gyllenhaal’s slimy stringer in Nightcrawler, say – are heavily outweighed by positive ones.

Of course Hollywood’s depiction of journalism tends to be detached from reality in another way, in that it bears little resemblance to the actual work itself. Vanishingly few journos are breathlessly running down corridors screaming “stop the presses”, or diving under a burnt-out car to avoid a grenade: most are sat in airless offices – or their kitchens or bumming free wifi in cafes – doing far less screen-friendly work, like, erm, subediting overly long newsletters.

Still, it feels a little churlish to complain about some good press, given the parlous state of the industry, the lack of trust in the media and the rise of AI and fake news. Crack on Hollywood, I say. Just don’t expect me to barrel-roll out of the way of sniper fire any time soon.

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