Civil War (2024)

It’s scarily telling that Alex Garland’s Civil War can be met with a shrug and a “what else is new?” The fourth film from the Ex Machina director is less of a prediction and more of a promise of things to come. But as dicey as the subject matter can be, it’s remarkable how little controversy the film courts, going as far as to almost avoid controversy all together, focusing on a group of characters who run up to the line of provocative before slowly back stepping away from the potential substance such a story could illicit.

The United States is at the tail-end of a second civil war. California and Texas have seceded, taking up arms against the President (Nick Offerman). It’s never explained what started the war, but the Western Forces are on the verge of deposing the Commander-in-Chief. Reuters journalists Lee (Kirsten Dunst) and Joel (Wagner Moura) have decided that they’re going to DC, the front line of the war, to interview the President, his first in 14 months. In tow is Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) a young and hungry would-be photo journo who idealises Lee and wants to document the final days first hand. With them is veteran journo, Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) needing to get to Charlottesville, with Lee and Joel his only colleagues willing to take him.

I found myself in two minds about what Garland is or isn’t trying to see with this film. At some points I could feel my frustration with the film saying nothing beyond “war is bad”. One can’t help but sense the futility in the hands-off approach the story is taking. There is no ideology, no discernible positions, and a lack of interest in how the world we’re watching had arrived to this point of carnage. Is it cowardice? A lack of understanding of our current reality? Perhaps smugness, a pithy sense of “well, both sides are bad so we don’t need to know where everyone stands, politically”.

But then I wondered whether my frustration was my own need to attach something unnecessarily to the story. We live in the mental trenches of the culture war, where anything or anyone can be politicised by the algorithm chasers, drilling their way into the brains of the angry and frightened masses for the promise of clout and money. Is my own brain so addled and ravaged by the daily brawl of Twitter that Garland’s refusal to play in the swamp with the rest of us has me short-circuiting? His politically blank slate approach almost acts like an ideological Rorschach test – you see what you want to see, and Garland gets to skate by without needing to make much of any statement about the current state of the world. Again, cowardice? Or is it more that he feels so much has or will be said about this film, that attaching any meaningful critique or message is a futile effort? 

One of the aspects of war journalism that the film captures incredibly well is the veteran journo’s sense of invincibility. Dunst’s Lee has seen too much, captured too much, but doesn’t take much convincing to head back into the fray. And it’s there for all to see on her haggard visage. Her mind races with moments of her past- overseas atrocities, immolations and intense gun battles. There is an uncomfortability watching her and her colleagues knowingly put themselves in harm’s way for the shot and story. Joel sharing a cigarette and a laugh with a militia member as US forces are executed in the background as De La Soul blares through the speakers is a particularly grim experience. It highlights the more absurd aspects of war. You expect the grimy and bloody faces of soldiers, charred and burned remains of military equipment, mass grave filled to the brim. Having a laugh and punching a dart with the same people who were frantically filling a bullet wound with gauze moments earlier isn’t exactly on my bingo card.

Perhaps it’s the neutrality that makes my stomach turn. There’s no true north of ideology in the film for anyone to grasp on to, and it’s the most discombobulating aspect. It’s difficult for me to say that Civil War is a hollow experience. Garland is hiding everything between the lines, and my own frustration and ideological attachments are drowning out the ability to parse what Garland is trying to say. There’s meat, here, to chew on. I just find myself chewing on it for longer than I’d like. 

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