Civil War is Alex Garland in Spectacle Allegory Mode

If Alex Garland had managed to get Civil War on the screen even seven years ago it would be entirely a five-star film. Garland has made the somewhat redundant point in interviews that Civil War is “…set at an indeterminate point in the future–just far enough ahead for me to add a conceit—and serves as a sci-fi allegory for our currently polarised predicament”. Perhaps it needed to have the post Trump context to really speak of the division in America – but if that is the case Garland is too ambiguous about the Second American Civil War to be making any firm stance except to say, “America is divided.” In which cast most everyone in the audience who has seen the news will be able to respond, “Yes – we know.”

There is an axiom around which states: contemporary dystopian fiction is often the result of the reality of third world countries being set in first world countries. Even hardened war photographer Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst) says, “I spent so much of my life photographing things that happened in other countries, I thought I was sending a warning that they shouldn’t happen here.” Lee’s flashbacks of her reportage overseas and real footage taken by people like Andy Ngo and others during riots in America which are interspersed with the President’s (Nick Offerman’s) opening address.

Civil War is both deliberately obtuse and heavy handed. We don’t really know much about this near future America except it’s about division which goes beyond economic lines or those of specific political and race related oppression. Who are the Western Forces? Why did California, Texas, and eventually Florida want secession from the United States Government? Who are the People’s Liberation Army? Why is Nick Offerman’s Republican styled President also a version of a Democrat? The answer Garland is offering is so basic as to be almost smug: “They are all you, America, if you don’t wake up and start talking to each other.” A third-term President is worse than red and blue states and the country is doing to its own people what it did overseas to others for many years.

Karl Glusman’s queer coded spotter sums it up for Joel (Wagner Moura) when the journalist asks him who is in the house where the gun shots are coming from. He just answers “Someone trying to shoot us, so we have to kill them first.”

Cub photographer Jessie (Cailee Spaney — excellent) comes across Dunst’s Lee Smith at a protest in New York. The police are trying stop crowds gaining access to water. They are beating people. A bomb goes off and Lee and Jessie survive thanks to Lee’s instincts built up from years of war photography around the world. Like many sections of the film, it is immaculately shot. The shocking blast captured in silence and images reminiscent of photojournalism. Garland is asking you to see the world the way we are used to seeing it reported – and he adds the visceral shock of destruction without reason. How does anyone comprehend seeing people on fire or ripped apart? How does someone comprehend still being alive afterwards? It’s a question he keeps asking through the film as a group of war journalists undertake the perilous odyssey across a broken land.

Somehow Jessie young activist/photographer still believes in the power of the free press, or even citizen press. From Missouri she has decided she wants to document what is happening. She ingratiates herself into a circle of journalists. Lee (modelled on everyone from the obvious like Lee Miller, Margaret Moth, and Martha Gellhorn) who became a war photographer after capturing the ‘antifa massacre’ at college. Lee’s writer partner is the Floridian Joel who is still an adrenaline junkie but like Jessie has faith in journalistic practices. He’s a bit of a mix between a non-misogynistic Hemingway and a gonzo reporter but with a solid gold heart. Then there is the elder statesman, Sammy (Steven McKinley Henderson) who is quietly channelling Cornel West meets James Baldwin. 

As the war is seemingly coming to its natural conclusion with the President going to be toppled Lee and Joel decide to take the road trip from New York to DC to get THE interview. They want to speak to the man who became a dictator and war criminal. A president who disbanded the FBI, ran for what is now an illegal number of continual terms, started carpet bombing his own citizens, and kills journalists on sight.

The road trip through American is where we get to know the burned out and seemingly emotionally numb Lee who doesn’t want the responsibility of a green kid. Joel and his trauma turned into headlong self-oblivion, and the quiet but aching for one last piece of action, Sammy. Although Lee, Joel and Sammy are aware they are ostensibly on a suicide mission they keep reiterating that the truth is important. That people need to see. That recording atrocities matters. That the press has a duty.

The journey itself forms set pieces designed to show just how messed up America is. A somewhat tortuous route takes them through Philadelphia, West Virginia, and Virginia. It’s a Dantean expedition through the circles of hell where the Empyrean is a moment where the exhausted journalists can stare at a bluebell while lying on the ground, or burning trees usher a soul to another world.

An abandoned JC Penney’s with a downed helicopter in the abandoned carpark. A ruined Christmas Carnival on a road acts as a sniper bluff. Roads are filled with empty cars and armed checkpoints. Other cars pass them by – one might hold people with guns ready to steal their mostly functional press van, another is a family with sad eyes fleeing to somewhere. Constant gunfight in the distance and grenades in the distance. Running towards yet another faction fighting someone (everyone is wearing American camouflage – and Garland waits until near the end to show the specific Western Forces patch).

A gas station where neighbours murder each other over food and brag about how they are in control now because they have the guns. A throwback town which is metaphor for a gated community (snipers on the rooftops protect it). Jessie encourages Lee to try on a dress and photographs her. For the first time in what could be years, Lee isn’t in combat boots and a stencilled vest stating “Press.” The audience is asked to imagine who Lee would be now if she had not seen so much. When she steps outside and says to Sammy, “This is the America I forgot existed,” he responds, “This is the America I remember.”

Jessie thinks she is tough enough and she begins to find herself pulsing with the same adrenaline that keeps Joel going. An horrific standoff with a soldier (Jesse Plemons) and his militia sees the neo fascist disposing of anyone he doesn’t think is American enough into a mass grave and in that moment Jessie realises that she could have chosen to stay in Missouri on her parents’ farm and been safe enough. But for other people – people such as an international journalist, or LatinX Joel – they are the wrong Americans. Or conceivably Plemons’ eyes covered by red lensed sunglasses is a garden variety xenophobe with military grade weapons. Because Garland is playing both sides-all sides-no sides as a provocation, people are fundamentally capital “A” America – whatever that means.  

Visually and aurally Civil War is technically imposing. The money is there on screen – helicopters float like dragonflies across the Rivanna and James Rivers. A visual cue to Apocalypse Now hangs just long enough to shimmer with the horror of the red dawn of war. Rob Hardy’s cinematography is stellar. Day and night hold equal terrors. Garland and his production teams have cannily created ruined spaces out of existing structures.

Yet for all the thunder of the war and the immense spectacle from the pulse-quickening raids, to the storming of DC, Garland is attempting to tell a human story. How Lee, Joel, and Jessie each deal with witnessing atrocities. Lee has nothing left in her tank to give but she still goes on. She tells Jessie that you just document. You don’t “get involved” — but of course she’s involved. Jessie begins as tentatively brave, scared of disappointing her idol, to traumatised, then galvanised to replace Lee.

Joel flips between protector, enabler, truth seeker to a man who has to admit he’s got no reason to keep doing what he is doing because it changes nothing. He screams at pointless deaths of those he cares for and in bleak desperation says of a character, “He died for no reason at all.” In that moment, like so many soldiers, he has forgotten that one of the reasons people die in war is they are saving the lives of another – in this case his own. Even he has stopped seeing himself as a person.

Conversely, Lee is regaining her personhood, but it is a scream of trauma. The woman who told Jessie that she would photograph the young woman’s death and move on has begun to shield her eyes from what she is witnessing.

There are numerous documentaries which look into the experiences and psychology of war correspondents. For example: Never Look Away by Lucy Lawless about New Zealand camera person Margaret Moth, Trained to See by Luzia Schmid, and Under the Wire by Christopher Martin. Each of these documentaries prove that there were women using cameras as guns, and typewriters as bullets. Gellhorn, Miller to Colvin and beyond. We see these people as essentially heroic because we believe that the “news” is getting through to people. However, the news is also a tool for propaganda – it can be a divisional platform with dangerous bias. Again, another place in the film where Garland is saying everything and nothing.

However, due to Spaney, Dunst, and Moura giving top notch performances (especially Spaney and Moura) Civil War avoids crashing and burning from the “obviousness” of it all. Because, like Lee Smith, you do invest in what is going to happen to the people Garland has put in sharp relief. Their eyes become your eyes and there is the consistently shifting metonymical exchange where we watch the watchers. Like Lee the audience might grow weary, even overwhelmed, but they won’t stop looking.

Civil War is not an insignificant film. However, Garland’s script commits to little. It becomes determinism masquerading as a wakeup call. Despite the colossal technical achievements Civil War is spectacle allegory. Absorbing in the moment but too soon forgotten. Alex Garland has made a good film which could have been a great film.

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Director: Alex Garland

Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Cailee Spaeny, Nick Offerman

Writer: Alex Garland

Producers: Gregory Goodman, Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich

Music: Geoff Barrow, Ben Salisbury

Cinematography: Rob Hardy

Editing: Jake Roberts

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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