Thursday, April 18, 2024

Civil War (2024)

Written and Directed by Alex Garland

Starring: Kirsten Dunst (Lee Smith); Wagner Moura (Joel); Cailee Spaeny (Jessie); Stephen McKinley Henderson (Sammy); Nick Offerman (President); Jesse Plemons (Militia Officer)

With a provocative trailer and a circulating map of an alternate United States of competing factions, Alex Garland's latest film Civil War arrived with a morbid curiosity. For what it is, Civil War offers some effective cinema, but its incoherence presents obstacles. 

The story follows a group of journalists including Kirsten Dunst as famed photojournalist Lee Smith, Joel who fearlessly goes into dangerous situations, Sammy as the wise veteran, and rookie reporter Jessie. The "Western Forces" are an alliance of California and Texas who are on the cusp of capturing Washington DC where a besieged "third-term President" is negotiating terms of surrender. The journalists hope to score an interview with the beleaguered President.

Right now, you may be saying, "Wait, What." The political background of the conflict is only revealed in vague asides. The war's been going on for so long, many soldiers are unsure of who or what they're even fighting for. There are paramilitaries and militias, while some fight for what's left of the regular army. Atrocities are committed by both sides which are sometimes shown in graphic detail. Jesse Plemons appears as a terrifying militia officer donning Elton John glasses.  

For some reviewers, the lack of a logical backstory displayed a failure of nerve from the filmmakers. There are no buzzwords like "Blue States" or "Red States", current events are never referenced. There's a reference to an "Antifa Massacre" without any context. The lack of political definitions did not bother me so much, even though the marketing was misleading. I'm not sure how audiences would react to such imagery. As a result, the film has not pitted audiences of differing political backgrounds against each other.

Nebulous politics aside, Civil War is more of a meta-war movie in the guise of haunted Americana. Full Metal Jacket and Children of Men come to mind, and also journalism themed movies like Salvador and Medium Cool which raised similar questions about ethics and media. The journalists in the film have completely removed themselves from politics, they just want to record the events. Kirsten Dunst explains to her protégé their job is to simply document, let others analyze and shape narratives.

The film climaxes with the violent attack on Washington D.C. as seen from the ground. Garland wants us to experience everything from the journalists viewpoint. We're not watching Battleship Potemkin, nor the trench run on the Death Star. Garland goes for gritty realism, but I was looking for more of a cynical edge in the style of John Carpenter, Escape From New York especially. 

With some casually talking about a permanent break between red and blue states, if anything Civil War is a warning about political violence and rhetoric surrounding it. No doubt, a Balkanized America would be a scary place, one where political affiliation could mean life or death. 

I suspect audiences going to see Civil War will be more perplexed than shocked. In time, it will be of interest to historians or film scholars as a cinematic experiment. Compelling on a visceral level, Civil War offers little by way of social commentary. 

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