Credit: Murray Close
Blockbuster Beat by Matt Lynch Featured Film

Civil War — Alex Garland

April 11, 2024

With his breakout directorial feature Ex Machina, Alex Garland reduced a story that demanded to question the relationship between a body and a soul down to a gender binary-reinforcing slasher film about misogyny. With Annihilation, he turned Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of a sentient environment struggling for its own survival into a tale about how it’s hard to be a sad woman sometimes. And his last film, Men, was even more emblematic of his penchant for preferring to have one tiny idea thinly explored, as a young woman finds herself under siege from every man in a little town, all portrayed by the same actor. Now we have Civil War, a movie with a speculative fiction premise that there is, you guessed it, a new armed Civil War in America, something its narrative ultimately doesn’t explore and has very little to actually do with. It’s a fundamentally unserious film with very little on its mind other than cheap provocation.

Sometime in the future, camped out in a war-damaged New York City, we find combat journalist Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst), famous and battle-hardened, and reporter Joel (Wagner Moura). They’ve decided to hop in the car and drive to Washington D.C., where they intend to interview the President (Nick Offerman), now apparently in his third term, who is not a fan of journalism as a profession, is given to exaggerations and outright lies, and may or may not be a racist who is about to be captured and killed by the rebellious Western Forces of Texas and California. How they intend to secure this interview is not disclosed, but it seems like they plan to just walk up to the front door of the White House and knock.

Along for the ride are old-school newsman Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and greenhorn photographer Jessie (Cailee Spaeny). Concerns about Sammy’s age and mobility, as well as Jessie’s almost entirely inexplicable naïveté — how she even got to this point in her young career at all is never explained, but she acts like she’s never taken a picture before… ever. Nevertheless, they persist. Along the way, we’re treated to a travelogue of an American countryside tainted by the bloody, awful conflict of neighbor against neighbor.

Sort of. Much has already been made of Civil War‘s (and by extension, Garland’s) refusal to detail the circumstances of the War: which side is the “good” or “bad” side, what precipitated it, and what exactly everyone’s politics are. Instead, let’s gently suggest that even if those things made some sense here (they don’t), they’re immaterial to Garland’s project, which is apparently one of morals and ethics in the face of warfare. That his protagonists are journalists seems more significant, but the problem is that we never actually see anyone do any journalism at all. Lee and Jessie take a few pictures, Sammy stays in the car, and mostly Joel just does the driving. We’re supposed to be questioning their roles in this debacle, but… they don’t seem to have any. That we don’t fully have the data on what the situation actually is is meaningful only in the sense that it completely deflates Garland’s “I’m just asking questions” posturing toward ambiguity. He wants to wag his fingers at you while not actually offending anyone, which is fully disingenuous. There is no target.

Further frustrating is Garland’s treatment of his non-white characters. The only victims of harrowing, brutal violence that we see on camera until the final moments are people of color. Is Garland’s suggestion that these are the people who will suffer disproportionately? Perhaps, but they’re offered no dimension. Two of these characters, reporters of Asian descent, barely get three minutes of screen time, and the other one is reduced mainly to a thankless, wise old man role, someone to die who isn’t the protagonist. The violence is hair-raising, to be sure, but it seems entirely perfunctory.

Certainly the final act, a battle for control of the nation’s capital, is visceral enough, even though the remaining leads are total ciphers who are playing allegorical pawns in a plot with no thesis. But Garland’s insistence that he’s got no dog in this fight means that we don’t even understand what the stakes are, other than the tacit agreement that this violence can’t possibly lead to anything good (spoiler alert: of course, it doesn’t!). If the journalists’ actions are at the center of his alleged moral quandary, Garland fails to actually articulate what their quandary is.

If the concern here is to spark a conversation in the audience about why ideological divisions seem primed nowadays to lead to dangerous behavior and even violence, that partisanship has eliminated constructive dialogue — well, that’s a conversation certainly worth having. Now, that would still mean Civil War was offering up trite material for a movie that believes itself to be so provocative, but let’s allow it for the sake of argument. The problem is that Garland doesn’t actually pose that question at all, he just lets us marvel at the arbitrariness of all this violence — an arbitrariness that he has deliberately created. Civil War doesn’t reflect any reality. It’s as empty and incisive as a mean tweet.

DIRECTOR: Alex Garland;  CAST: Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, Cailee Spaeny, Stephen McKinley Henderson;  DISTRIBUTOR: A24;  IN THEATERS: April 12;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 49 min.