peteg's blog - noise - movies - 2024 05 27 CivilWar

Civil War (2024)

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Written and directed by Alex Garland (Ex Machina, Annihilation, Never Let Me Go). For Kirsten Dunst. It's dire.

Notionally California and Texas have gotten organised against the East Coast with Florida going its own way. War photographer Dunst and three other old-school journalists take a road trip from NYC to Washington D.C. to interview the President who is not expected to survive the month. All this must be intentionally improbable — in contrast to more serious works like, for instance, Omar El Akkad's — and the set pieces so derivative that I couldn't figure out what Garland was trying to say. There's certainly no novelty in it.

On the source materials: the episodic nature of the trip upstream is so obviously Heart of Darkness and therefore Apocalypse Now. Many of the set pieces are direct lifts of either actual Việt Nam War footage or movies (man set on fire, summary execution, etc.). To some extent Stephen McKinley Henderson's infirm adrenaline addict reminded me of Matthew Modine's Joker from Full Metal Jacket. (The summary execution of the soldier/sniper at the top of the stairs here is a sanitised echo.) Things got a bit Team America (humourlessly) when they fragged the Lincoln Memorial. (I don't know who "they" were. It really doesn't matter.) And so on.

There are plenty of dumb bits. Dunst is the last character to be killed by the numbers (c.f. The Order of Death) and her lack of self preservation — crash tackling but not going down with young on-the-make Cailee Spaeny — was ridiculous. Her real-life squeeze Jesse Plemons is effective in bloodless Breaking Bad mode which is to say he didn't get out of first gear.

Garland may've been chasing a concept (that I couldn't discern) but shooting photojournalists shooting the war is redundant: they were and are already platformed and many wrote memoirs (e.g. Tim Page). It's all been done before and done far better.

The American reviewers somehow took this dross seriously. A Critic's Pick by Manohla Dargis. Wow. "Rarely have I seen a movie that made me so acutely uncomfortable." "A happy ending is impossible." — but isn't that the nature of all wars? Dana Stevens. "The point is less plausibility than viscerality." A Year of Living Dangerously. "But the fact that the carnage these reporters are documenting is homegrown shifts the inflection significantly. Suddenly it's impossible to exoticize or otherwise alienate ourselves from the bloodshed onscreen, which makes us ask ourselves what we were doing exoticizing it in the first place. This effect of moral immediacy is Civil War's greatest strength, and the reason it feels like an important movie of its moment even if it isn’t a wholly coherent or consistently insightful one." — somehow the actual everyday violence in the U.S.A. just isn't real enough.