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  • Writer's pictureChris Rogers

'Civil War' (2024)

For many, Civil War will be defined by a single line delivered by a man wearing camouflage and carrying a rifle: “Okay. What kind of American are you?” The trailer certainly leaves that impression, lead actress Kirsten Dunst has commented on its centrality and some critics view the scene as one of the few where the script actually engages with its title. But for me another line suggests what the film is really about, and thus what writer-director Alex Garland is himself saying.  


The line arrives early, and is uttered by hardened war photographer Lee (an excellent Dunst). “We don’t ask,” she explains. “We record so other people ask.” It’s a familiar argument when conflict is being reported, whether that involves helicopters over the rice paddies of Vietnam or mass graves in the fields of the Balkans. Here, though, it’s applied to suicide bombers on the streets of America and sundry other horrors, since Lee and her colleagues are in a New York hotel covering the final stages of a fourteen-month battle between secessionist states (who are winning) and government forces (who are retreating) in a near-future United States. The general mood is efficiently conveyed by cool-toned shots of an early city morning where the streets are deserted save for a solitary tank guarding a crossroads and snipers hunker down on the roofs of skyscrapers.


Lee and three others are planning to follow the fighting to where the endgame will play out – Washington, DC where a defiant president is bunkered in the White House. Each of the four has their own motivation though each considers what’s ahead differently. Fiery young journalist Joel (Wagner Moura) is desperate for an interview with the president before he is deposed; aging newspaper man Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) wants to honour the traditions of his trade. Passionate young newcomer Jessie (the appealing Cailee Spaeny) hero-worships Lee (Garland’s script notes the co-incidence of name and career with those of Lee Miller, and includes a neat visual nod to her most famous image) and blags passage with little heed to the possible consequences, much to the older woman’s dismay. This, then, is a pairing – and opposition – of sexes and ages that permits us to track the growth of enthusiasm and dissolution and observe where those graph lines cross. Jessie’s use of her father’s film-based Nikons while Lee carries modern digital cameras is a subtle application of the same idea. 

 

The quartet then begins a drive through 800 miles of a disintegrating America whose situation is economically sketched – a third-term president, the dissolution of the FBI, airstrikes against civilians and the Western Forces, with the Florida Alliance alongside, as a 21st century confederacy. That California, Texas and Florida hardly seem obvious ideological bedfellows

tends to support my theory that Garland is far less interested in the politics of his or any other comparable scenario than he is in the way the outcomes are diffused, and indeed he has made a road movie to allow him (and us) to explore this.


Garland often bends the familiar along the way – a pre-war billboard slogan boasts its sponsor is ‘Building America’, a Christmas fair still stands in a field months after that holiday, rural highways now feature checkpoints. If it says much about the world today that the sight of military hardware on the streets of America carries rather less of a charge than it did thirty years ago in Red Dawn (1984) and Invasion USA (1985), the unsettling atmosphere is convincing nevertheless. As with all road movies the journey is punctuated – and the characters’ views punctured – by vignettes that here carry a frisson of fear or feature a sudden burst of violence. They range from a noisy, bloody skirmish around what might have been a university campus to an intimate sniper duel in that empty field, and include that scene with the man in camouflage (remarkably powerfully played by Jessie Plemons, Dunst’s husband). Each challenges the journalists’ tenet of what we might call ‘distant proximity’, and they find themselves questioning their understanding of what is taking place even as it changes them. The men are affected first, with Joel and Sammy undergoing trauma after that moment with Plemons’s character, but the women’s turn will come as Lee and Jessie become closer.

 

Cinematically almost all of this takes place in the clear light of day, with the grimness jarring with the summer sunshine. It is an effective contrast, recalling Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005) and, to a lesser extent, Ric Roman Waugh’s Greenland (2020), but especially Gareth Edwards’s Monsters (2010). Both it and Civil War employ a speculative fiction scenario, a low-key, carefully-realised background and the trope of a road movie to deliver their narrative, yet neither is actually about their titles.

 

Garland handles his dynamic close-combat scenes very well but crucially inserts within them Jessie’s monochrome stills of the same events. This inter-cutting – a technically impressive effect that never hinders the pacing and for which editor Jake Roberts should also be praised – accelerates as the action intensifies, both culminating in a viscerally absorbing firefight within the White House as secessionist forces push deeper and deeper into their quarry’s lair.


It is apparent then that Garland is using a long-acknowledged truism, that wielding both guns and cameras involves loading, aiming and shooting, to get across his true message – the seductiveness of media imagery arising from morally ambiguous events. The very first shot of the film – distorted, hand-held, candid – is of the president (Nick Offerman) rehearsing a bullish speech he is about to give on television. The very last is a still of soldiers celebrating a ‘kill’, to the accompaniment of rock music. In between, Lee exploits this same power to defuse one of those suspenseful situations before finally becoming a victim of it herself. Even consideration of the president’s fate addresses this point – other despots, like Mussolini, Ceausescu and Gaddafi, were pulled from their palaces and summarily executed, their deaths recorded in stills or footage; Hitler, of course, cheated the world by killing himself before this could happen, leaving only photographs of his remains.

 

What we see, what we believe and the questions we might usefully ask of both are front and centre in Civil War. Alex Garland portrays just one set circumstances in which those questions could arise, and does so intelligently and with assurance. It’s that approach by which the film might be better defined.

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Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture

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