Sunday 14 April 2024

Civil War | review by Stephen Theaker

Kirsten Dunst plays Lee, a celebrated and determined photojournalist who hopes to get one last photograph of the US president before his inevitable execution by rebels from the Western Alliance, who are closing in on Washington. Texas and California fight together in the alliance, the traditionally Republican and Democrat states setting their differences aside to depose what the director has called in interviews a fascist president. I don’t think that’s spelt out as clearly on-screen, though I saw it in 4DX and it’s easy to miss dialogue when the fans are blasting away. We do learn that he disbanded the FBI and ordered airstrikes on US citizens, and that something called the antifa massacre happened. Florida has also seceded, and the Portland Maoists are among those taking their guns to the White House. The president is in it so briefly and yet played so perfectly by Nick Offerman that Ned Beatty’s record could be under threat.

Lee is travelling to Washington in a car with Joel (Wagner Moura), a journalist who wants to get the president’s last interview. Lee is persuaded to let Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson; Thufir Hawat from Dune) join them in the car. He’s a bit too old for this kind of adventure, and writes for the New York Times – one might wonder if his ill-health reflects how some saw that newspaper when this film was written. While drunkenly flirting with a pretty photographer, Joel is persuaded to let her join them. Reckless Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) is 23, but in her plain t-shirt and jeans looks about 16, and, having recently saved her life during a suicide bombing on a city street, Lee is understandably unhappy to have her in the car and in the warzone, risking her life again.

The first two-thirds or so are an episodic road movie, our four protagonists encountering various deadly situations of the kind that might arise if modern-day America was riven by civil war. Shootouts in towns, snipers picking people off, flashpoints at gas stations, people taking the law into their own hands, psychopaths indulging their worst impulses. The film left me discombobulated, much more nervous than usual to hear sirens in the taxi on the way home, and thinking back to the 2011 riots, when our local police station and bank both burned. All it took back then was a few hundred people who didn’t care about consequences to bring the country to a halt. Civil War is a warning. It tells us that society is a bubble, and if it pops we all suffer. A brief appearance by Alexa Mansour made me think about how it was rather like The Walking Dead at its best: all the misery, all the despair at human nature, but without the catharsis of regular zombie-killing.

Aside from a few minutes at the beginning and a couple of establishing shots, the film sticks with our protagonists’ point of view, and doesn’t give us much information about the big picture. Just when I was beginning to think, this is a great road movie but I wish it had more of the epic scope that the trailer suggested, they arrive in Washington and we see a fully-fledged battle portrayed realistically and brutally. I’m sure it hits even harder in the US, where they get to see their own landmarks blown up and fought over, but it had a powerful effect upon me too: both of our countries have been lucky in how long it’s been since land wars were fought on our mainlands. The film asks American viewers to seriously imagine, at a time when some seem eager for it to happen, how dreadful that would be, and of course to consider how dreadful it is for those countries already at war.

Some American entertainment writers have described the film as irresponsible, as if it might somehow encourage a civil war. To anyone who has seen it this will seem quite demented. Others are concerned that they can’t tell which side in the war we are supposed to support. Paying attention to who shoots at journalists and who protects them might have helped. I think part of the issue there is that the film presents an old-fashioned view of journalists, as people whose job is to record what’s happening, rather than to decide what should be happening and what their readers should think about it: they want Alex Garland to nail his colours to the mast, for his film to reassure them that he’s on their side. It’s hilarious but depressing to see such writers highlight Helen Lewis’s nod in the credits (yes, that Helen Lewis, regular on The News Quiz and Have I Got News for You), as if that’s a telling point against the film and its director.

The only criticism I would make is that this wasn’t really a suitable film for a 4DX screen. I was so keen to see it early that I could overlook my seat punching me in the back when the bullets flew, but the jolt of the 4DX seats during the suicide bomber scene felt completely inappropriate, turning a terrible human tragedy, albeit a fictional tragedy, into a rollercoaster ride.

But that’s more about cinemas and distribution choices than the film itself, and it did mean I got to watch Civil War on the gigantic screen it deserved. Alex Garland’s decision to start directing his own films after Dredd was clearly a good one: the film looks stunning and the storytelling is masterful. He has suggested that he may step away from directing (perhaps to write the new 28 Days Later trilogy currently planned), but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him get an Oscar nomination for this superb film, and with luck that will change his mind. Nor would it surprise me if Kirsten Dunst gets a second nomination – you completely believe she’s seen the horrors her character photographed – and her real-life husband Jesse Plemons, despite being a last-minute addition to the cast, would be a certainty for awards recognition if his role were any longer, but thank goodness it wasn’t. I hardly dared breath when he was on screen. Stephen Theaker *****

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