Civil War is messy, infuriating, inspired and exciting

3 out of 5 stars

One of the iconic images of the first decade of cinema was the closing shot of The Great Train Robbery (1903). An outlaw faces the camera directly and unloads his pistol point-blank into the camera. Goodfellas, Breaking Bad and even James Bond pay homage to this moment. In a brief, almost unremarkable shot, Alex Garland’s Civil War does as well. In the opening scene, in the chaos of a protest gone wrong, a nameless figure points their gun right at the camera. It’s brief, barely noticeable. It aspires towards realism. It’s a gaze that isn’t quite impossible, in the sense that few people would likely live beyond that moment, but it reaches for it. Garland’s film plays with the power of the camera and of the documentary to capture and transform reality. While it’s a film about a not-so-distant future where America is gripped in a civil war, it’s also about photography. 

Like many of Garland’s films (Ex-Machina, Annihilation, Men), Civil War is messy, infuriating, inspired and exciting. The film follows Lee (Kirsten Dunst), a seasoned war photographer, working with journalist Joe (Wagner Moura) to cover the front lines of the ideologically murky civil war. They plan on driving down to Washington, D.C. to interview the president, soon joined by NYT elder Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and burgeoning photographer Jessie (Cailee Spaeny). 

Jesse Plemons in Civil War

While the film uses the United States as its backdrop, it seems only vaguely interested in the country’s reality. For better or worse, the conflict’s source is flattened and merely alluded to. We only get a real sense of what’s going on in snippets — a confrontation by the water, for example, where an American soldier asks the journalists who among them is a “real American.” Resentment festers below the surface of most interactions between strangers. Shootouts unfold in Christmas-themed fairgrounds, both sides unsure whether they’re aiming at friends or foes. Even within the confines of this alternate universe, the film often departs from reality in ways that will certainly challenge literal-minded viewers. Despite some flourishes, Garland’s mostly naturalistic approach to filmmaking makes it difficult to treat the film as pure allegory, which becomes increasingly frustrating as the film tests the viewer’s suspension of disbelief. 

At the heart of this, the film focuses more intently on photographers’ value (or lack thereof). Journalists sacrifice comfort and safety for the story and the “shot.” The movie, though, is not unambiguously supportive or celebratory about the field of war journalism. Artifice abounds. We watch as photographers frame their shots and “search” for the image. We also understand that without the context of the film, the images themselves are uprooted from real meaning. Perhaps alluding to Sontag’s book Regarding the Pain of Others, the film seems to directly question the value of war photography in mitigating violence and representing reality. We understand how shots are composed for maximum drama and how, without real context, they are worthless. The film’s central narrative quest leads toward a frustrating but challenging finale that ultimately sheds the photographer’s quest as one rooted in arrogant rather than selfless sacrifice. 

This might sound pessimistic, but within the character writing, this conclusion feels softened. The various characters’ fallibility is an integral driver of tension and vulnerability. The cast is all-around fantastic, capturing a sense of camaraderie and intimacy. Dunst especially has a wearied intensity that drives home her status as one of the great American actors of her generation. She’s rough and focused, and her performance allows, through her interactions with Jessie, an avatar for her younger self, an unveiling of an inner life that doesn’t need to be spelled out. Her refusal to be soft feels adaptive to her chosen career, and her unravelling in the film’s final act, barely commented upon by those around her, feels like a natural response of no longer seeing the world filtered through a camera. The pain and suffering she’s forced to witness are no longer bearable as they become real, no longer just abstracted documents.

The overall success of the film, though, remains vague. It’s not an all-time great commentary on photography or documentary reality, and it’s not especially good as a defining portrait of American life. It has a handful of incredibly visceral scenes, strong performances and striking images. It’s a movie that invites the viewer to think about various topics without much guidance. It’s thought-provoking but not well-argued, preferring a distant or “objective” approach. Civil War is an elaborate series of thought experiments that are never quite taken to their logical conclusion. The experience isn’t bad, but it’s ultimately quite empty. ■

Civil War (directed by Alex Garland)

Civil War opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, April 12. 

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