Civil War review – Alex Garland's immersive yet dispassionate war film – The Guardian

The writer-director’s much-anticipated look at the horrors of an America violently divided is an impressive technical feat yet an emotionally cold drama
Civil War, Alex Garland’s hotly anticipated dystopian drama on an America divided by military conflict, knows what we’re looking for. The film opens with the president (Nick Offerman) in profile, practicing lines as he prepares to address the nation. His assurances of strength and patriotism are interwoven with seemingly real, recent news footage: a flash of riot gear, police armed like soldiers, masses against shields, two seconds of a body being dragged. Garland, the writer-director behind such modern sci-fi hits as Ex Machina and Annihilation, doesn’t have to show much from 2020 or beyond to get the point across. We’ll fill in the rest.
This is good news for those who feared Civil War would swerve too close to the present election-year polarization for comfort, or wring entertainment out of the beyond oversaturated national presence and specter of Donald Trump. Civil War, which premiered at the SXSW film festival, introduces the connection and then summarily abandons recognizable politics for the dispassionate work of combat journalists in the moral gray area of the war zone. In a year of red-hot tension and fear, Civil War runs cold – decidedly anti-war but firmly unspecific, assiduously avoiding any direct correlation to current politics or, it turns out, any politics at all.
The film begins well into a conflict in which Texas and California are allies in the “Western Front” (Florida is also joining) against the federal government. The three-term president has authorized drone strikes against civilians and disbanded the FBI, we learn in clunky journalist chatter, but this is war: everyone is killing each other. Both sides have a military. There are no discernible ideologies beyond winning. To the protagonists of this film – hard-boiled Lee (an excellent Kirsten Dunst), adrenaline junkie Joel (Wagner Moura), hotshot newbie Jessie (Priscilla’s Cailee Spaeny) and mentor Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) – there is only work to do, conflict to follow, evidence to capture.
Civil War is just as much road movie as war movie, as the journalists travel from contested New York, where residents scrounge and riot for water, through the eastern US (Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia) to the Western Front’s frontline in Charlottesville and then DC. The goal is to score the last interview with the president in a zone where journalists are, as Sammy says, shot on sight. (“Interviewing him is the only story left,” says Joel, which never makes sense.) As a suspense thriller, Civil War is very successful – Garland has a knack for the choreography of conflict, for tuning up the mutual suspicion of every encounter with a stranger (as both sides use US army fatigues, it’s hard to know who is who, and it doesn’t matter as long as they’re not trying to kill Lee’s convoy). Civil War is A24’s most expensive production, and it shows. Garland’s rendering of the war-torn suburban US is a fascinating mix of beautiful and horrifying – a shellshocked JC Penney’s, bodies hanging from a highway overpass, an abandoned Christmas festival in the summer. Perversions of Americans’ sense of stability, lush and dexterously deployed.
Civil War works on the level of intellectual exercise: a film clear-eyed on the horrors of war and trauma in which journalists are the unsentimental heroes, and which relies on the audience to supply their own assumptions of American politics rather than spoon-feed reality. But the distance makes for an at times frustrating watch – stimulating on the level of adrenaline, not emotions. In part, the internal logic feels off – who’s the audience for these journalists, if there’s no cell service and no one appears to use the internet? Why would these images matter, in a divided future nation that has, I presume, fully lost shared reality? There really aren’t any bleeding hearts in this journalist crew?
It’s true that righteousness matters little to those caught in the violence of war, but Civil War’s strict indifference to motivation rankles a little, considering the very stark ideological divide between political parties today or America’s actual civil war, which was fought over the cut-and-dried issue of slavery and then strategically whitewashed over decades into a tale of “states’ rights”. Garland’s Civil War gives little to hold on to on the level of character or world-building, which leaves us with effective but limited visual provocation – the capital in flames, empty highways, a viscerally tense shootout in the White House. The brutal images of war, but not the messy hearts or minds behind them.
Civil War is screening at the SXSW festival and will be released in US and UK cinemas on 12 April

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