Be wary of any occupation described as “important.” The second you hear your job referred to as “essential” or, worse yet, a “vocation,” prepare to be underpaid and underappreciated. No job is more dispensable than the so-called important ones: True job security lies in holding a position no one quite understands the utility of, especially you. 

While the title and trailer for Alex Garland’s “Civil War” promises a film about a present-day America forgetting the lessons of 1865, he proves far more interested in one of those unfortunately important occupations: the journalist. War journalism is even worse, as it takes an already thankless task and throws in the bonus of live gunfire. Who are these people who face Hell every day the same way we brave traffic? Is it strength that keeps them going, or rather some species of brokenness?

The film follows Lee (Kirsten Dunst) a renowned photojournalist teamed up with writer Joel (Wagner Moura). Like the rest of their fellow reporters, they are covering the ongoing civil war between the U.S. government and the Western Forces, an alliance between California and Texas. Florida, in keeping with the restraint and foresight it’s known for, has broken away as its own republic. All factions march toward D.C., with the capital expected to fall any day.

Lee and Joel decide to scoop their colleagues by driving through the warzone and attempting an interview with the president (Nick Offerman) before he is deposed. Two other journalists, each on the extremes of the age spectrum, tag along; their elderly mentor Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and cub reporter Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) who idolizes Lee much to her irritation.

The film is almost perversely apathetic to political reading, with coalitions so ridiculous they seem designed to preempt any attempt. In reality California and Texas agree on little except the necessity of A/C, and even then they’d likely exchange tactical nukes over the definition of room temperature. Some film critics have dismissed this apoliticality as a weak, even cowardly decision. But Garland isn’t evading the question here, but rather opening a whole new prompt.

On their journey the reporters stumble upon soldiers targeting an unseen sniper. When asked which faction the sniper fights for, the soldiers look disgusted by the question. Which side is he on? Why, the one currently shooting at us! It seems ideology can get you onto a battlefield, but pragmatism is the only thing that will get you back off. One recalls Jack Nicholson in “The Departed:” “when you’re facing a loaded gun, what’s the difference?”

The press is a neutral party, with badges and vests that provide at least the illusion of immunity. As Lee expounds repeatedly to her unwanted protégé, objectivity is both ethical journalism and a common-sense survival tactic; no one likes feeling judged, with those carrying out war crimes particularly touchy about it. Garland shares this distance, never delving into the who’s and why’s of the war over the immediate now. The impartiality is not a bug but quite literally the whole feature: “Civil War” ponders the impossibility and necessity of objectivity, and how it corrodes your soul regardless.

Cailee Spaeny and Wagner Moura in “Civil War.” (IMDB)

Is true objectivity even feasible? Photojournalism is never truly impartial, as every picture involves decisions. The road tripping journalists pretend they are mere observers, but the camera is their eye and their perspective in both senses of the word. After all, just because the photo caption doesn’t reveal their conclusions doesn’t mean they have none. The movie offers no solution to the contradiction between objectivity and shaping the narrative, you’re left to decide if this is a tightrope or a net.

“Civil War” is interested in journalists, but interest isn’t the same thing as admiration. Too many recent films about the press have felt protective and almost condescending in their treatment, a backrub for an industry on its back foot. Garland respects journalists enough to not respect them, letting them be humans and not humble guardians of democracy.

There is a thin line between objectivity and detachment, and the journalists here straddle across willy nilly. After witnessing a suicide bombing in New York, the reporters return to drinking in the hotel bar like insurance men at a conference. To them the frequent power outages in the city just mean spotty Wi-Fi. For all their stated noble intentions, the journalists come off more like adrenaline junkies than crusaders, their quest for the “perfect picture” becoming the purpose itself and not what it gives the public. One recalls the first photojournalists during the first Civil War, who rearranged fallen soldiers for more thrilling tableaus.

At first glance Lee is one of these cynics, able to snap photos of dead bodies with nary a gag. Bright-eyed and bushytailed Jessie can’t stomach the reality, and hardly stops trembling through Pennsylvania (though few among us can.) She is idealistic, but in the wild ideals get you killed. If you walked in halfway through Lee’s mentoring, you could reasonably mistake it for corruption. She even offers the kid cigarettes like a greaser in a “Leave It To Beaver” episode. 

Yet somewhere the roles reverse, with Lee deteriorating at the same clip Jessie grows bolder and more aloof. The easy answer to this is years of repressed PTSD finally passing their check. But Dunst plays it differently, as her character succumbs to the pangs of conscience. Jessie can’t help but remind her of her lost innocence, and either the disparity between what she once was or the relief that the baton has been passed, allows Lee to step forward into the frame.

The final act is a thrilling invasion of D.C., but the true climax comes just before. Lee takes a picture of a fallen colleague, but after a second’s deliberation deletes it. Some moments belong to the moment, and some images are powerful because even as a million eyes deserve to see them, only one pair will ever truly understand.