Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Civil War: A Review (Review #1809)



I think many people disliked Civil War because it did not fit neatly into their preconceived notions. Others, I think, disliked it precisely because it fit neatly into their preconceived notions. The reaction on Civil War strikes me more as a reflection of our unnecessarily divisive times than on the film itself. Quieter, more meditative than I expected, Civil War works if you look at it with as open a mind as you can muster.

In a dystopian America, the United States are united no more. The President (Nick Offerman) is assuring the loyal states that two factions are close to losing the war. The Florida Alliance is the lesser of the two, but the Western Forces of California & Texas are, he assures, on the verge of collapse.

In reality, the WF are fighting their way to Washington, D.C., teetering on the verge of collapse. A group of journalists are determined to get as close to the capital and interview the President. There is renowned photojournalist Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst) and her colleague Joel (Walter Moura), who captures the chaos with her pictures and he with his prose, both set on landing the big interview. New York Times veteran Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) asks to go with them up to Charlottesville, feeling he is too old to join them in the final assault but still wanting to see the action. Finally, there is Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), an aspiring photojournalist who sees Lee as a heroine. Reluctantly and over Lee's objections, Jessie joins them.

As they travel across dangerous territory, the group witnesses various horrors such as battles and vigilante actions. Of particular note is when they barely manage to escape mercenaries at a mass grave site. Not everyone makes it to the final push into Washington, D.C. Here, the chaos of war leads to the second Fall of Washington, where again lives are lost in the efforts to capture both the shot and the President.

I think people walking into Civil War were misled by the advertising. I figure many expected a violent action film. Others expected a commentary on present-day America, down to where people complained about Texas and California joining forces. I do not think Civil War was meant as allegory but fantasy. By having two diametrically opposed states as California and Texas unite, we have that ambiguity that I think the film aimed for. 

I know people saw Offerman's President as a President Donald Trump stand-in. My own relatives have said that the "fascist" dictator President on his third term in Civil War was Trump. That, I believe, is projecting their own ideas into something that, based on what I saw, did not exist. A part of me thinks that the people who equate the Civil War President with Trump would genuinely like to stand over his corpse, grinning at finally freeing America from a fascist dictatorship. 

Oddly, as a small tangent, I did not see the Offerman character as Trump. I was actually reminded of Chile's Salvador Allende, who committed suicide at the Chilean Presidential Palace of La Moneda rather than be taken by the military coup that was overthrowing him. Like in Civil War, the president's official residence was attacked by armed forces with the beleaguered head of state trapped inside. Allende was a Socialist. 

Civil War is not specific on what the unnamed American President believes or what the second Civil War was about. If I took a guess, it would be to that illegal third term, but writer/director Alex Garland does not specify or even offer any reasons for the war. I think many have expressed frustration about that. I would offer that Garland and Civil War are not interested in specifics or in attempting to lay down parallels to today's divided America. Despite what many thought on release, Civil War is not laying the groundwork for a parallel to today. 

Instead, Civil War is about those chronicling the war and the effect the violence and brutality have on them and the population at large. Oftentimes, we see war films either from other nations or set in the past. By using the present-day United States for the film, Garland was not speaking about America now. He was just bringing the scenario to familiar territory. 

Civil War has some good performances that draw the viewer in. I think those who say that Dunst looks bored or disengaged from things miss that the character was, if not bored at least a bit dead inside. She made Lee into a professional who over time evolves into a more engaged, even tragic figure. Early on she tells her protégé Jessie, "We record so other people ask," and later adds that she would take shots of Jessie's death should they make for a good picture. I think it is clear that this is foreshadowing, but I was not picky about this.

Spaeny was a nice counterbalance as the more naïve Jessie. Granted, at times I found her annoying and dim. However, the genuine fear she had at the mass grave site is a strong bit of acting. Henderson's Sammy did well as the voice of wisdom, slightly cynical but able to rise to greatness. Moura was probably the weak spot here, for I never believed his determination to get the sit-down with the President.

Civil War also has some beautiful and frightening images. When the foursome drive through a burning forest fire, the scenery is frighteningly beautiful. When the Lincoln Memorial was blasted, that was jarring in how it did not pull away.

I also had a hard time with some elements of the premise. This is especially true when they finally arrive in Washington, D.C. Part of me did not believe that the President would not have negotiated for his life or fled the White House before the inevitable fall. Again, a similar situation occurred on September 11, 1973 in Santiago, Chile. However, Allende stayed to the bitter end. This President hid under his desk, which I found unbelievable. 

If you watch Civil War without the idea that it is meant to be about the United States as it is now, you will find a film focused on the randomness and destructiveness of war. Civil War is, again, not allegory. It is a speculative film that takes the premise seriously and makes one think about what could happen if it did happen. Effective and well-made, Civil War should not be avoided. 

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