Civil War Review | Snapshots of the Revolution

by Andrew Parker

Alex Garland’s Civil War is an ideologically messy, but undeniably novel bait and switch. While its undeniable timeliness and clearly baiting title suggests a filmmaker examining a global superpower past the brink of political, economic, and ethical chaos, Civil War is really about the people who report upon that level of violent unrest while trying to remain dispassionately impartial. While there’s a lot of politically loaded material in Garland’s latest, it’s predominantly a Heart of Darkness styled journey about journalists, not a de facto state of the nation piece. Some might be tricked into thinking that it will be the latter, but hopefully they’ll be pleasantly surprised that it’s more about the former, and that Civil War works just enough to be consistently intriguing.

Garland (Ex Machina, Annihilation, Men) sets his scene during an American Civil War where Texas and California have seceded and joined forces to fight the rest of the United States. The “rebels” are on the verge of a major breakthrough, and award winning photojournalist Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst) is keen to make an 857 mile long trip from New York City to Washington D.C. to document the potential fall of the capitol. Led by fellow journalist Joel (Wagner Moura) – who hopes to get what could be the last interview with the current sitting president (Nick Offerman) – Lee’s travelling party is crashed by Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), a budding but naive photographer who idolizes Smith’s work, and Sammy (Stephen McKinley Harrison), an old timer who might not be able to hustle as hard as his younger colleagues if the going gets tough.

Civil War takes a numbed, taciturn, and hard boiled approach to the collapse of the American empire, and it’s mostly befitting of the characters and personality types at play in Garland’s work. Garland has always had a harsh and knowingly cynical edge in his films, and Civil War is no exception. Garland understands that bleakness and the sometimes shockingly blasé reactions these people have to callous acts of violence are savvy ways of parsing what it takes to maintain journalistic integrity. Their job isn’t to necessarily ask why something is happening, but rather to record the events so others can ask where the line is drawn and what constitutes necessary defensive behaviours.

That’s a bit of a double edged sword in Civil War, mostly because Garland remains fascinated by the various personality types that field reporters display than the world he has built around them. The actual war is secondary in Civil War because Garland has done little more than posit a question about how cool and draining it might be to become a journalist in a war zone. There are many sequences where instead of focusing on what these journalists are capturing, Garland instead finds more interest in journalists gabbing and grab-assing than the nuts and bolts of their assignments. 

Joel is gregarious and chatty, often sporting a devilish smile whenever things start to get really dangerous (provided that he’s not the actual target of a violent act, in which case, he loses all cool). Jessie is a wet-behind-the-ears idealist who’ll have to harden up if she wants to survive. Lee has seen it all and done it all, and has little inclination to be a mentor to Jessie. Sammy is an old school kind of guy trying to make it in a new reality. None of these characters are particularly interesting or original, which means Garland’s insistence on weaving a story around them instead of building a larger conflict feels rather simplistic and basic. There’s a resistance to putting more of a human face to these characters, because Garland would rather perform basic psychological examinations of them instead.

So much time is spent among these familiar personality types that the world at war suffers from similar cliches. There are rogue militias, profiteers, rationed resources, bigoted police officers, feral journalists who see the end of the world as some sort of extreme pleasure sport, places where people stick their heads in the sand to pretend a war isn’t happening in the world around them, and questions about allegiances that are vague and arbitrary. For each good idea and sequence Garland is able to come up with in Civil War, there’s another that hits as being overly familiar and underwhelming, and in spite of the director’s well honed ability to build and sustain tension. It’s clear that Garland has a grand, pointedly pretentious vision for what he wants Civil War to be, but the results on the whole are shallow and on-the-nose.

The core quartet of performers also has more than a little unbalance. Dunst, a photographer in real life, is at her absolute best as Lee, in a performance that might turn out to be award worthy. Her demeanour, professionalism, and degree of insight provides Garland with exactly the kind of intelligent detachment he’s looking for. Spaeny, however, is a let down as Dunst’s counterpoint, but it’s not necessarily her fault that the character she’s tasked with portraying is naive to the point of one questioning how she has survived as long as she has in such a dangerous profession. Moura sometimes lands on the hammy side of things as the grizzled investigative performer, but he’s balanced out nicely by the subtler, more nuanced and mournful work being provided by McKinley.

The real difference between Civil War being “not all that great” and “kinda okay” is Garland’s technical abilities as a filmmaker. Civil War is a work clearly made with the big screen in mind and to showcase the power of the still image. When Garland views the world through the literal eyes of Lee and Jessie, it becomes clear that the filmmaker admires anyone who can walk through abject hell with a steely resolve just so they can “get the shot.” In moments of disorienting chaos and large scale action set pieces (most memorably during an extended, climactic siege on the capitol that dazzles), Garland will come up with potent visuals that can capture an entire story with the press of a button. The best moments in Civil War occur whenever Garland is able to briefly zoom in on a single moment amid a loud, deadly, and disorienting blitzkrieg. (It should also be said that Civil War has one of the best and most complex sound mixes of the year, and I am nothing if not a sucker for an elegantly composed soundscape.)

Viewers who want Civil War to be a commentary on the state of the world today will leave feeling disappointed and cheated, but those willing to parse what it means to document and frame a disintegrating world can find more meaning in Garland’s work. It’s not that Civil War is an apolitical film; far from it. Every image is politicized by the person taking it, whether they realize it or not; each shot a reflection of that person’s tenacity and world view. Garland understands this, but in a bid to work on this large of a scale, some concessions had to be made, and those come in the form of making his characters into easily understood bundles of cliches and vague personality tics that aren’t meant to be parsed. That’s disappointing, even thought the film largely holds up on its own.

Civil War opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, April 12, 2024.

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