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What ‘Civil War’ gets right and wrong about photojournalism, according to a Pulitzer Prize winner

Greg Braxton and Carolyn Cole – Los Angeles Times (TNS)

After favorable reviews and a strong opening weekend at the box office, Alex Garland’s provocative “Civil War” is already poised to become one of the most talked-about movies of the year. The filmmaker’s graphic, often terrifying depiction of a war-torn America and a government in crisis has sparked plenty of debate among audiences and critics.

And while the story’s “what-if” premise is pure fiction, “Civil War” is nonetheless flavored by a gritty realism central to its power.

The principal focus of “Civil War” is war-weary photographer Lee (Kirsten Dunst) and her writer colleague Joel (Wagner Moura), who pick up an aspiring young photographer named Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) and a veteran journalist named Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) as they set off on a dangerous journey to the White House, where the president is besieged by encroaching rebel forces.

Carolyn Cole, who has covered national and international news for the L.A. Times since 1994, saw “Civil War” late last week and agreed to answer questions about what the film gets right — and wrong — in its depiction of journalists operating in perilous conditions. Cole’s work on the effects of civil war in Liberia won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for feature photography. She is also two-time winner of the Robert Capa Gold Medal for war photography from the Overseas Press Club of America. The following has been lightly edited.

Q: Overall, how would you rate the accuracy of “Civil War,” speaking from the perspective of an experienced photojournalist?

A: As horrible as the premise of a current-day civil war may be, I thought many of the themes touched on in the movie were realistic, like the interplay between a veteran and novice photographer, and the group of journalists as they traveled together. Although the scenarios they faced were extreme, they were plausible. Real images come to mind like that of the American soldiers hung from a bridge in Fallujah, Iraq, or the U.S. Marine dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia. I’ve photographed riots, firefights, mass graves and the aftermath of deadly bombings. Like all movies, the intensity of each scene is exaggerated, but the scenarios are possible.

Q: Were there any moments in the film that you thought clearly misrepresented the experience of photojournalists working in a conflict? How so?

A: I thought Dunst did a good job playing a veteran photojournalist, especially in her calm demeanor throughout most of the movie. However, there were several scenes where she was carrying a camera bag but didn’t have her camera out. Sometimes she was using a short lens when she should have been using a telephoto lens and vice versa. There were also times when major events were happening and she wasn’t taking any pictures. Toward the end of the film, she stops working completely, as PTSD takes over. But compared to many movies I’ve seen that portrayed photographers as paparazzi with a flash attached to the top of the camera, I thought the overall portrayal of the photographers was well done.

There is one scene where Jessie is developing her film in the field. Although some photographers still use film, you need a darkroom to load the film into the developing cans. In the old days, I used to take all the chemicals with me on assignments and develop the film in a bathroom, then dry it with a hairdryer.

The final scenes are clearly over the top, but Lee stepping out into the line of fire to protect Jessie seemed more like a motherly instinct than one of a colleague. By that point, the handing off of the baton to Jessie is in full swing. The physical and psychological effects of working as a conflict photographer, along with the toll it takes on one’s personal life, do pile up over time.

Q: Were there any moments in the film that felt particularly true to life?

A: There is a scene where Lee and the reporter are in disagreement over who will join them on the trip. That happens. Journalists do team up in vehicles, partly because of costs, limited fuel or for safety. And there are many times you have to sleep in the car, which has happened to me when covering several hurricanes. There’s a scene where all the cars have been abandoned on the freeway. I saw something similar covering Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. It’s amazing how quickly societal norms break down in a crisis. It only takes a day or two before looting begins and people are driving the wrong way on the freeway.

Q: We first meet Lee at a protest in New York that turns explosive. How does her behavior during that scene and others like it compare to your experience?

A: In their first encounter, Lee lectures Jessie about safety, handing her a bright yellow vest, then shields her during an explosion. Although photojournalists don’t wear construction vests, it was a nice gesture. It would be nice to think that any human being would jump in to protect a colleague in that situation, but I’m not so sure.

Q: There are multiple moments in the film when journalists are injured or threatened with injury. How realistic are those dangers, and what did you think of their colleagues’ actions in those scenes?

A: The dangers of covering conflicts are real. Photographer and friend Chris Hondros, along with Tim Heatherington, were both killed in Libya during the Arab Spring; Associated Press female photojournalist Anja Niedringhaus was killed in a targeted attack in Afghanistan; and I witnessed a colleague grazed in the head by a bullet in Haiti, just to name a few. Over 78 journalists were killed in 2023, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The bond between reporters and photographers can be very strong. Many of the photojournalists working in the field are people I’ve known for years. It’s a fraternity of sorts. We rely on each other, even if we might work for competing organizations. You would expect colleagues to come to each other’s aid in times of crisis. Life and death situations can show the true character of an individual. I’ve seen the results both positive and negative.

Q: What did you think about Dunst’s performance portraying Lee as someone increasingly haunted by the horrors she has photographed?

A: Each person is affected by what they have witnessed in different ways. I’ve never suffered from flashbacks, nightmares or PTSD, but I know others who have. Not only does it take its toll professionally but it can be difficult to maintain relationships in real life. Dunst’s performance as Lee seemed realistic in that the years of covering trauma had finally caught up with her. Most likely those flashbacks would happen not in the heat of the battle but when reflecting during more quiet moments. After each conflict I covered, I went right back to covering local news. It helped me to move forward and not dwell on what I had experienced. I poured all my energy into covering each crisis to the best of my ability, knowing that was my role.

Q: Lee’s philosophy is that her job is simply to record events and let others ask the questions about the meaning of her images. Do you have a guiding principle in the work that you do?

A: My mission has always been to be the eyes for those who can’t be there to witness what’s happening in person. That was certainly my objective while covering the Iraqi people from Baghdad as the U.S. began to drop bombs there in 2003, and in Afghanistan after the events of Sept. 11. I think of photographs as evidence, documentation of what happened and the effect on those involved. Having a clear sense of purpose gives the confidence to approach strangers, who seem to understand that I’m there to do a job. Photography is a universal language that most everyone understands. It used to be that most people at home and abroad understood the role of journalists, but unfortunately we have now become targets ourselves.

Q: Lee and her colleagues regularly enter volatile situations quickly, without really assessing what may be going on or the dangers they may face. They seem to trust their instincts more than the spotty information available to them. What is the real-life process like for knowing where to go and under what auspices?

A: It’s a process of collecting as much information as possible about any given situation. A road that is safe one day could be too risky the next. That’s why journalists are always asking questions. It takes drive and determination to get to the front line. In the end, it’s about risk-taking. Each person has their own level of risk tolerance. It’s important to travel with people you know and trust, and who you can rely on. What needs to be documented is often something or somewhere officials don’t want you to see. Instinct is something you can acquire over time, but it isn’t foolproof. I always tell young photographers to spend a few years working in the U.S. and in places like Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean before heading to cover stories farther away. Given what’s happening in our country, we might be at the hot spot here in the near future.

Q: In some scenes, Lee is wearing a helmet or protective gear. In most scenes, particularly the climactic battle in Washington, she is not. Is that realistic?

A: There were many things about the ending that weren’t realistic. I don’t believe soldiers would have allowed journalists to be so close to the action, even helping them. Regarding protective gear, some journalists don’t wear vests and helmets because they think it gives them a false sense of security, or they can’t move as freely. I have always worn it in conflict situations, but I’ve also been lucky not to have been hurt. Plenty of soldiers have been killed wearing their kit.

Q: Jessie, the aspiring photographer, tells Lee after the horrific incident with the militant soldiers that she has never been more scared in her life but that she has never felt more alive. Is that a sentiment you can identify with?

A: I wouldn’t frame it that way. Certainly, living through any life-threatening event is going to be memorable. Your adrenaline is pumping and you are fully present. It’s common to hear civilians who have lived through war reflect on that being the most memorable time in their lives. That said, it’s not something anyone would wish for. When you are covering a conflict, there is nothing normal about it. Some people may be drawn to the profession for the adrenaline rush, just like some do dangerous sports. What is most meaningful for me is knowing that I am witnessing history and trying to make images that do justice to the people and events I’m covering.

©2024 Los Angeles Times. Visit at latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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