Review: Civil War

If Civil War is Alex Garland’s last movie as a solo director, his body of work is going to last a while. There are images in Civil War that will haunt me for years, though it’s not always a haunting I’ll applaud. Whether or not Alex Garland has succeeded in making his own Apocalypse Now or Lawrence of Arabia won’t be clear for several years, but it’s hard not to appreciate that in spite of his myopia, he’s trying to say something.

None of which changes the fact that Civil War is a bit of a clusterfuck. It works best when it’s not dealing directly with politics, but paradoxically, its failure to grapple with politics turns out to be a lethal flaw. While opting not to explain the great cataclysm that split America in half is a solid artistic choice, Civil War also neglects to deal with political power in any capacity. Usually I’m loathe to let a movie’s press weigh greatly into my reading of a movie, but Civil War echoes Garland’s view that civil war is just something that happens as a result of political division. There’s no political power, economics, or infrastructure behind the apocalyptic civil war. People just turn against each other, and that’s scary. It’s a view of politics so naïve that it makes The West Wing look seasoned and astute. Civil War has the politics of Guest Essay section of The New York Times. Nice cosmopolitan journalists in Manhattan venture out into the terrifying bucolic hellscape of rural America, where farmers pretend that the war isn’t happening (as if a massive disruption to American infrastructure wouldn’t hit farmers first). It’s a jaw-droppingly embarrassing failure to understand American politics; by far the stupidest thing Alex Garland has made, and that’s without addressing the use of Andy Ngo footage in the movie, or that Civil War thanks Helen Lewis. No wonder Alex Garland on Pod Save America talking about how the Left can win elections. His target audience thinks that Rashida Tlaib condemning the IDF is a threat to democracy but the Senate renewing warrantless surveillance isn’t.

And somehow this failure of politics goes hand-in-hand with some phenomenal use of film. Exploring a second American civil war through the eyes of a war correspondent is a properly brilliant science fiction premise, and it’s one Civil War explores to stunning effect. Kirsten Dunst feels like every war correspondent I’ve ever met (if I get to interview, I’m going to ask her which reporters she shadowed). Civil War understands that journalistic impartiality means standing back and letting somebody burn to death. There’s a scene that rapidly intercuts a bloody skirmish with still pictures of the fight; it captures the disparity between real violence and represented violence in a way no photojournalist could. It’s an extraordinary way to use film, and single-handedly justifies Civil War‘s existence. And there’s some astonishing suspense in this movie. For everything Civil War lacks, there’s something about it that shines.

But even then, the critique rings hollow. Garland sees photojournalism as an unbiased way of looking at the world. He treats the press as the last defenders of democracy, lacking any agenda. But journalism is constant decision-making. It’s not agenda-free. Every moment you’re out in the field, you’re picking a side. And you’re often doing it against the express orders of a media conglomerate in Baltimore. You’re out there building relationships, making contacts. I’m sure Marie Colvin was an influence on Dunst’s character. I know people who were close with Colvin, who struck up an acquaintance with Arafat. People like Marie Colvin and Lowell Thomas did not see their jobs as apolitical. I am sick of this representation of my industry as heroic. We are not heroes. If President Nick Offerman went full fash and shut down freedom of the press, there’s no way he wouldn’t preserve a few select journalists and outlets to get his message out.

It’s extraordinarily frustrating, and outright diabolical. Civil War contains Alex Garland’s best filmmaking, and yet it’s his worst movie. His legacy is going to last, but he’s ending his career by selling his soul to the ghouls who think we can sacrifice some civil rights and trans people (oh yeah, this movie’s handling of race sucks too!) for the sake of civility. To people like Garland, the worst thing about democracy’s fall is rednecks getting too brave. For the rest of us, the death of democracy means getting strung up while the press debates how high they should hang us.