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Shattered Union and Alex Garland’s Gritty Vision of a Fractured America | “Civil War” Review

Hoping it's not too prophetic, the onslaught of new movie releases brings few must-sees; however, among them is "Civil War" by the ingenious Alex Garland.
Civil War (2024)

MOVIE REVIEWS

Civil War (2024)
Directed by Alex Garland

Hoping it’s not too prophetic, the onslaught of new movie releases brings few must-sees; however, among them is Civil War by the ingenious Alex Garland.

It’s likely correct to suggest that Alex Garland is less interested in explaining what could lead to a civil war today than in depicting what happens when one finds oneself in the midst of it. Everything happens, and it’s never quite clear. The writer-director of Civil War (and previously Ex Machina, Annihilation, and Men) thrusts us immediately into the fray, into a situation we struggle to even grasp: in a near future, there’s a civil war in America, some states have seceded (the western forces, i.e., California and Texas, the Florida Alliance), and the president (Nick Offerman, previously with Garland in the TV series Devs) attempts opaque victory proclamations contradicted by reality, setting a tone of forced normality that’s ready to crack at any moment (the sudden blackouts, black smoke columns on the horizon, swarms of cyclists streaming at dawn in New York).

As they say, SNAFU—situation normal: all fucked up. Moreover, even in the idyllic town seemingly alien to the conflict (as the boutique clerk pontificates, “we try to stay out of it”), a mere glance upwards reveals snipers on the rooftops. In these Disunited States of America, where one might die for the wrong answer (“what kind of American are you?” with a rifle aimed at you), we journey to the front line with a group of clichéd independent journalists (the famous weary photojournalist, a magnificent Kirsten Dunst, the young rookie who idolizes her, the cunning colleague, the wise old tool).

But they too are disoriented, speak in clichés, and are always too late. They may not even be real characters and certainly don’t help us understand. Instead, they let us see. What exactly? A couple of soldiers tortured at a gas station, mass graves filled with butchered victims, cemeteries of abandoned cars on the roads, the bright tapestries of bombs and missiles that embroider the nights, even the secessionist forces’ final assault on the White House complete with a live execution of the president (a masterful sequence, the war movie in the age of citizen journalism). The war itself, moreover, has become a repetitive compulsion, no longer even comforted by ideological opposition, devoid of meaning especially for those fighting it, like soldiers stuck in a grueling stalemate with a sniper for no apparent reason (“someone wants to kill us and we want to kill them”).

Thus, Civil War is both every war movie we know by heart (especially Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket) and none of them, with some debt also to the fine DC/Vertigo comic DMZ, although Garland is adept at often pulling the rug out from under us. These sudden shifts, coupled with a curtain of undecidable ambiguity that envelops it, are the strength of the film. It’s also the sharp gaze of an Englishman on his overseas cousins in the year of the most unsettling U.S. presidential election ever. Civil War will divide audiences. But it’s a must-see. Hoping it’s not too prophetic.

Rocco Moccagatta

Film TV, April 18, 2024

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