The Hamilton Spectator

Chilling insurrecti­on thriller seems all too real

Alex Garland film depicts an America of the near future where democracy has ruptured


“Civil War,” the latest provocatio­n from British writer/director Alex Garland, looks hard at America and sees a country of dazed, confused and violent people. He’s just not sure what to say about it.

He’s like the unblinking camera in the hands of Kirsten Dunst’s lead character Lee, a veteran combat photograph­er who has covered horrifying wars elsewhere but thought the U.S. was immune from a similar implosion.

“Every time I survived a war zone, I thought I was sending a warning home: don’t do this. But here we are,” she says.

The movie chillingly depicts an America of the near future where democracy has ruptured, civility is at gunpoint and all hope seems lost. It opens with Nick Offerman’s besieged President making a defiant TV address to a rapidly disintegra­ting nation.

He warns of an “illegal secessioni­st government” and speaks of breakaway factions that include “the Western Forces of Texas and California.” He vows they will be stopped, but his words ring hollow. Gunfire and explosions sound throughout the country as soldiers and military hardware amass.

The film shows more than it explains, which has been Garland’s way since he addressed artificial intelligen­ce with “Ex Machina,” identity and self-destructio­n with “Annihilati­on” and misogyny with “Men.” He once told me in an interview he makes his movies to be “as thoughtful as I can” because he has faith the audience will follow his lead without need of hand-holding.

Garland takes this philosophy to the max (and to IMAX screens) with “Civil War,” his fourth and biggest feature and the one that’s hardest to parse. His films typically have a sci-fi and/or fantasy context, yet this one seems all too real in the wake of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by angry supporters of defeated U.S. president Donald Trump.

“Civil War” tracks an SUV filled with journalist­s as they journey on back roads from New York to Washington, D.C., seeking the biggest story of their careers. Joining Lee in the car are her colleague Joel (Wagner Moura), a cocky reporter whom she’s worked with before; Jessie (Cailee Spaeny, “Priscilla”), an aspiring young photograph­er who idolizes Lee; and Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), a grizzled journalist and mentor who writes for “what’s left of the New York Times.”

They’ve heard the Western Forces are advancing on Washington, D.C., with the intention of capturing the capital by July 4, Independen­ce Day. Lee and Joel hope to interview the President inside the White House even though they’ve been told that journalist­s are being shot on sight in D.C.

Informatio­n is imparted like a machine gun spray of bullets, as are images shot via cinematogr­apher Rob Hardy’s hand-held cameras. There is only superficia­l regard to character developmen­t. It’s hard to take the measure of what’s going down, apart from sheer chaos and a rising sense of dread.

Questions abound. The Western Forces combine red state Texas and blue state California. How did this unlikely pairing occur and what are its intentions, apart from seizing the White House and evicting the President? The rebellious faction has a lot of firepower — jets, helicopter­s, snipers — and even its own two-star flag.

And how about the journalist­s? Do they really think they can score an interview with the President, who hasn’t talked to the press in 14 months? How do they propose to get into the heavily guarded White House? On a more prosaic note, how do they file their copy and photos, and to whom? There’s apparently no cellphones or GPS systems still operating.

On the way to D.C. they encounter and document increasing­ly horrific scenes of death, torture and destructio­n. It’s reminiscen­t of the fateful river journey of Martin Sheen’s patrol boat in “Apocalyse Now,” the classic Francis Ford Coppola war film that Garland has named as an influence.

Peak madness is achieved when the press SUV stops at a bodystrewn checkpoint run by renegade soldiers. One of them, a redneck played by Jesse Plemons, asks with rifle drawn: “What kind of American are you?” The question is the film’s most urgent one; the “wrong” answer is lethal.

Garland maintains a mood of unreality that might be mistaken for satire or even indifferen­ce. The film would work better if the dramatic stakes were better defined. The acting is above reproach, but apart from Lee’s regretful flashbacks about her wartime experience­s and her fears that Jessie is following her down a dark road, there’s not much to relate to in simple human terms.

The characters all seem to be operating randomly and from pure instinct.

As frustratin­g as that can be sometimes to watch, it’s also probably an accurate representa­tion of how a real U.S. civil war would play out in the 21st century.

A series of provocatio­ns and skirmishes would combine to bring an end to the American experiment “not with a bang but a whimper,” to quote T.S. Eliot’s poetic descriptio­n of Armageddon in “The Hollow Men.”

The camera lens witnesses without judging or elaboratin­g. So does Garland and “Civil War.”

 ?? A24/ELEVATION PICTURES ?? Cailee Spaeny, left, and Kirsten Dunst star in “Civil War,” which asks the question, “What kind of American are you?” The wrong answer could be lethal.
A24/ELEVATION PICTURES Cailee Spaeny, left, and Kirsten Dunst star in “Civil War,” which asks the question, “What kind of American are you?” The wrong answer could be lethal.

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