A road trip across America hasn’t been this harrowing since the Griswalds set off for Walley World

With Civil War, Alex Garland clearly wants to hold a dark mirror up to present day “polarised” America, using that mirror as a grim crystal ball to foretell the doom to which the so-called Land Of The Free is hurtling towards. There’s no denying it’s a subject ripe for exploration, so it’s just a pity that Garland, having chosen his platform, finds he has very little of note to say about it, beyond maybe the tried-and-true trope that war is Hell.

In the ninth month of a second American Civil War, as the President (Nick Offerman) continues to address the nation, assuring them of imminent victory, the secessionist forces of California, Texas (and maybe Florida?) march inexorably towards Washington DC. In New York, veteran war photographer Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst) and war correspondent Joel (Wagner Moura) hatch a plan to travel to DC and secure an interview with the President, the first in over a year. Along with veteran journalist Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and Jessie Cullen (Cailee Spaeny), a young wannabe war photographer eager to prove herself, they travel across a country ravaged by the conflict.

Dunst, never the most emotionally engaged of actresses, seems to be aiming for numbed and near-burnt out in her performance but just comes across as exhausted and disappointed. Paired with the eager young cub photographer, she all too often falls into resting mom face, looking like at any moment she will snap and demand to speak to the war’s manager. In contrast, Wagner Moura’s Joel is almost out of emotional control, oscillating wildly between cavalier recklessness and abject despair. It’s almost like the only thing Alex Garland is willing to commit to is, ironically, the idea that moral ambivalence is no way to live. Thankfully, Spaeny and Henderson are present to provide a more accessible emotional journey for the audience, with each at opposite ends of their lives and careers the events bruising and bloodying their experience and enthusiasm. Of course, in wartime tragedy is never far away and CIVIL WAR’s finest moment is the first time tragedy strikes our little brand of intrepid reporters directly. Unfortunately, it reaches its lowest point the second time tragedy strikes as the most profoundly stupid and out-of-character decisions end in the most avoidable fashion.

Garland’s pathological desire to avoid taking an overt political position in the movie creates a lack of specifity that renders the entire movie hollow. Sure, there are hints here and there of real-world factors (Offerman’s rehearsal of his forthcoming Presidential remarks use a syntax that could be considered a bigly clue to the inspiration for his character) but entirely absent from what’s presented on screen is any kind of explanation of how the conflict came about in the first place, an explanation would require Garland to stray into editorial commentary. He sees himself, perhaps, as a noble and detached observer, metatextually crafting his dystopian amorality tale around a group of photojournalists, sworn never to interfere or ask questions but to document so that others may ask the questions which need to be asked and challenge the things that need to be challenged.

It’s a queasy equivocation that sounds good in theory but makes for unpleasant watching on screen, as evidenced in an early scene where Dunst’s character is covering a riot at a water truck which is attacked by a suicide bomber and in the immediate aftermath stalks through the debris and bodies not looking for injured survivors but for the “perfect shot”. It’s a detachment with which CIVIL WAR seeks to expiate its own neutrality but instead only reveals the gap between the film and the war correspondents it seeks to lionise: they provide context, the movie does not.

The marketing may have tried to portray CIVIL WAR as an ersatz OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN writ large, but that does the film a gross disservice. It isn’t really about the war at all – at times it’s barely interested in it. Instead, it’s an examination of the importance and cost of journalism at the bleeding edge of humanity’s worst impulses.

Unfortunately, because we don’t really know who these people are, and what they think of the events unfolding around them, the scrupulous detachment we’re meant to respect them for comes across as callous self-interest, with the only time they ever seem to be genuinely concerned is when their own lives are threatened. At a time when a free and independent press is more important than ever and under more intense pressure than ever, and an open goal to explore the very real possibility that Americans may be the most thoroughly propagandised population in the world, or that the current coruption of the body politic is due less to “both sides” polarisation and more to do with cynical partisan radicalisation, CIVIL WAR feels very much like Alex Garland coming not to praise the free press but to bury it.

civil war review
Score 4/10
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