Civil War

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Civil War. The title and the upfront concept – a modern-day fight to the death between secessionist states and the rest of the USA – is more enticement and attention grabber than political provocation. Look for evidence of red v blue or the culture wars writ large, or the Trump years, and you’ll find them, but you have to look hard and writer director Alex Garland has other rockets to launch here.

For all the big budget and hardware, helicopter firestorms and battle scenes, it’s a very small, old-fashioned B movie about a single person’s journey towards salvation, with Kirsten Dunst as the battle-scarred war photographer whose inner dialogue about her approach – get the shot and hang the human cost – gets louder as the film goes by.

It’s an Apocalypse Now structure. A loose group of people heading not upriver but down-country, from New York to Washington DC, where the embattled president of the USA is making bellicose speeches even as the combined breakaway states of Texas and California inch towards the White House.

The aim of much-garlanded Magnum photographer Lee (Dunst), Reuters man Joel (Wagner Moura) and old New York Times newshound Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) is to cop an interview, grab a picture, take down a pithy quote, from the embattled president (Nick Offerman) and further enhance their already illustrious careers. Along for the ride, and worshipping at the feet of Lee is wannabe snapper Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), a whelp with ambition and her dad’s old Nikon FE cameras. She shoots on black-and-white negative film and develops her pictures in the field. Old school.

That technical detail is the key to the whole film, which looks and has the ambience of a war movie from the Vietnam years. DP Rob Hardy gives us grandiose Coppola moments here and there, though overall he’s more interested in capturing the feel of the great photographers of the time, the axis of the likes of Don McCullin/Philip Jones Griffiths/Henri Huet/Nick Ut who worked on Nikons and Leicas to capture the battles like the Tet Offensive and the fall of Saigon.

Jesse Plemons making a cameo appearance
A brutal cameo by Jesse Plemons

Intimate moments enhanced by meditative moments in the score of Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury are the glue holding the various action sequences together. It’s here that Dunst and Moura, Spaeny and Henderson interact to construct a plausible, almost family unit. Anthony Mann’s superb, low-budget character study Men in War may have been a model here. Either way it’s here that the film works best – not that the action stuff is bad, it’s great – but Civil War‘s claims to specialness are in the interaction rather than the action.

They are a doughty cast. Dunst looks like she’s seen the worst things anyone can have seen – and Garland drops in stark, grim images from Lee’s illustrious career to emphasise that she has. Moura is the chirpy, slightly unhinged Dennis Hopper-style reporter, smiling as he runs into a hail of bullets, enjoying the sound of gunfire in the morning. Henderson, a stately presence as the old dog with maybe one new trick left, twinkles away like a conscience – old school media, huh, how we miss it now it’s gone. And Spaeny as Jessie, through whose big eyes we see it all, is the innocent abroad learning quickly as she goes.

Along the way Garland and his crew show us stuff reminiscent of famous stills photographs or newsbites – that pile of dead bodies covered in lime is the Nazi death camps or Rwanda, that cowering politician is Gaddafi or Sadam Hussein and so on. They help build the sensation that what we’re watching is urgently real, as does Hardy’s often handheld shakycam.

And dispels any lingering notion that Garland is giving us a what-if version of the current political situation amplified. Garland said in an interview with the Daily Telegraph that what he was partly interested in doing was “a sci-fi allegory for our currently polarised predicament”. Maybe he said this to chuck a journalist some meat. If an allegory really was his intention, this film is a failure. But it isn’t, though, is it? Beneath the headline, beneath the homage to old-school war reporting and the quiet discussion on ethics, lies something much more basic, a movie about what it is to be human. This movie is much more like Ex Machina, Garland’s most famous film, than at first appears.

Civil War – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2024

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