What Are We Fighting For?
by Gavin Smith

Civil War
Dir. Alex Garland, U.S./U.K., A24

The 15-year-old me would have gotten a big kick out of Civil War—but for better or for worse he’s not writing this review. Brought to us by prolific future-shock purveyor Alex Garland, Civil War is as logic-challenged as the likes of the English writer-director’s earlier screenplays for 28 Days Later, Ex Machina, and Annihilation. But never mind—here the film’s very premise is its own hot take.

Ten minutes into the future, the United States of America is no longer all that united. Texas and California have broken away to form an alliance known as the Western Forces—a red state/blue state team-up knowingly intended to short-circuit the audience’s partisan assumptions. East of the Rockies, an unspecified number of secessionist states have linked up as “the Florida Alliance.” The front lines of this war are in Charlottesville and closing in on D.C. So the U.S. military is at war with… who exactly? Itself? Which side is which? And how long has this been going on anyway? Your guess is as good as mine. Even John Milius offered pre-credit titles in his cockeyed Red Dawn (1984) to sketch a possible global scenario that would make an invasion of the U.S. by Russia “conceivable.” More fool him, Garland would presumably say, happy to keep us in the dark about how we got from there to here, leaving it to the viewer to fill in the blanks, while blithely maintaining that Civil War is the jumping off point for a “conversation.” But seriously, just what kind of conversation can it possibly engender? Most likely a pretty brief one.

White noise is laid over the film’s credits and then, in the film’s opening shot, the unnamed President (Nick Offerman) stumbles into tightly framed focus to rehearse a televised address he’s about to deliver to the nation. Here he hails “the greatest victory in the history of military campaigns,” i.e., the defeat of the Western Forces. This third-term president is identified as neither Republican nor Democrat but he’s abolished the FBI, authorized air strikes on American targets, and sanctioned the shooting of news media personnel. Sound a little familiar? Well, since Garland is intent on doing everything possible to make Civil War politically and ideologically nonspecific, the film is effectively a $54 million Rorschach test that invites viewers to project whatever affiliations and prejudices suit them onto the action. Was Garland tipping his hand in a recent post-screening discussion when, after suggesting the audience “connect the dots,” referred to Civil War’s President as essentially “a fascist”? Not wanting to alienate 50 percent of his potential ticket buyers, Garland sidesteps national politics altogether (while maintaining the film is “intensely political”), invoking the high ideals of journalism and reporting as supposed bastions of unbiased objectivity, a post-WWII myth that no longer holds.

And so Civil War is less a war movie than it is a film about reporters traversing a war zone and risking their necks to get the story, taking its cue from Roger Spottiswoode’s Under Fire (1983) and Oliver Stone’s Salvador (1986), as well as Volker Schlöndorff’s Circle of Deceit (1981).We’re introduced to top war photographer Lee (Kirsten Dunst, looking more lived-in than we’ve ever seen her) in the film’s second scene, in which a riot over a water rationing truck pits police against civilians until a suicide bomber puts an end to things. Cut to one of those fancy hotel lounges in which the press corps traditionally hangs out, at least in movies, drinking and gossiping while they await their next assignment. Here we meet Lee’s reporter sidekick Joel (Wagner Moura) and seasoned rival journalist Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson). When Lee and Joel resolve to undertake a perilous journey to D.C. to interview the President before he’s removed from office (an inevitability that’s now a given for some reason), voice-of-experience Sammy decides to hitch a ride to the front lines in Virginia. Also tagging along is Lee fangirl and fledgling photojournalist Jessie (Cailee Spaeney), who gushes over her idol’s pictorial coverage of an “antifa massacre” and to whom Lee becomes a reluctant and wary mentor. All the same she bluntly assures the young rookie that she won’t hesitate to snap pictures of her dead body should Jessie catch it in the line of duty. You can be sure at least one of these fellow travelers is going to buy it by journey’s end.

Civil War settles into a road movie structure, embarking with a de rigueur shot of a highway choked by wrecked and smoking vehicles extending into the horizon. The roads they traverse are deserted, and judging by the ruined cities in the distance, war has largely come and gone in the East. The four journalists take a circuitous 857-mile route from New York to D.C. by way of Pennsylvania and West Virginia (Philadelphia is deemed too hairy to travel through). And in hallowed road-movie tradition, Garland lines up a series of encounters along the way, escalating from the merely menacing (a gas station run by the kind of armed men you’d cross the street to avoid and who favor Canadian dollars to U.S. currency as payment) to the harrowing (a pair of West Virginia soldiers looking to add a few more corpses to the mass grave they’ve excavated, who subject the journalists to loyalty tests). In between these sequences, the quartet listen at night, mostly with weary indifference, to the distant rattle of an automatic weapons firefight, which upon daylight inspection has dwindled into a bloody, take-no prisoners shoot out. This sequence concludes with a De La Soul needle drop as three soldiers are casually executed, underlining Garland’s penchant for not always subtle incongruity—a downed helicopter in a J.C. Penney parking lot here, a sniper ambush amidst winter wonderland décor set to “Silent Night” there, a football stadium full of refugees, a town going about its business untouched by the war aside from the rooftop gunmen watching over it, and plenty of counterintuitively jaunty songs on Civil War’s road to hell.

Even if the film’s poster campaign is a bait-and-switch, promising a sniper’s nest atop the Statue of Liberty and aircraft carriers in New York’s East River, Garland nevertheless handles his actual action sequences capably, above all in the film’s climactic pull-out-all-the-stops battle in the nighttime streets of D.C. Sure, films and TV shows in which the White House comes under attack are now dime-a-dozen, but this one tops them all, serving up a dynamic full-scale military assault, replete with tanks and attack helicopters (although he freely admits that his military advisers and stuntmen essentially choreographed the myriad moving parts of this immersive mayhem). Our fearless reporters throw themselves into the forefront of a last-ditch running battle between a military kill-team and Secret Service agents in the hallways and offices leading to the Oval Office (one nice detail: the stacks of takeout containers spread across a table in one shot). Why their target isn’t secure in his impregnable White House bunker we’ll never know, but let’s not quibble over silly things like logic at this stage. The cowering President is dragged out from under his desk and then there’s a pause as the soldiers allow Joel to step in with the all-important request of their former Commander-in-Chief: “I need a quote.” Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream” is the perfect accompaniment to Civil War’s final image, a haunting money-shot that slowly develops before our eyes, a nothing-sacred payoff that certainly packs a punch.

What we’re left with are the usual platitudes about polarization, failure to communicate, extremism, and the sad plight of those undaunted reporters who put their lives on the line, unheard and distrusted. Sammy mentions “what’s left of the New York Times” in passing but the film’s keynote line goes to war junkie Lee: “Every time I survived a war zone, I thought I was sending a warning home: don’t do this.” But any fool knows the anti-war sentiments espoused by Garland’s journalist mouthpieces can’t possibly counter Civil War’s sweeping, intrinsically thrilling spectacle of up-close warfare and social collapse à la The Purge—maybe the only way to do that would be to keep it discreetly out of shot, and even then, I have my doubts. In this sense, persisting in frustrating his audience by withholding labels is beside the point. When asked whom he’s shooting at, a sniper replies, “No idea”—which is, of course, a direct callback to the Do Lung bridge sequence in Apocalypse Now, in which a wild-eyed grunt, queried by Willard about who’s in command, responds, “Ain’t you?”

All the way to its chilling final shot, Civil War’s action is punctuated by freeze-frame photographic “decisive moments” caught by the two photojournalists with grace-under-pressure grit. “That’s a great shot” may be the ultimate accolade, but later battle-hardened Lee quietly deletes a photo of a dead reporter. And while in the thick of the whiz-bang finale Lee temporarily loses her shit, Jessie positively thrives, gasping, in one wince-inducing line, “I’ve never felt so alive!” At last it’s the protégée who has the requisite dispassion to capture and keep a colleague’s postmortem portrait—and then move on. In the end, as a story of journalists, Civil War is not so much Apocalypse Now as it is All About Eve.