The Movie Waffler New Release Review - CIVIL WAR | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - CIVIL WAR

Civil War review
With the US plunged into civil war, a war photographer attempts to make her way to Washington DC.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Alex Garland

Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Nick Offerman, Jesse Plemons, Wagner Moura, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Cailee Spaeny

Civil War poster

A popular book among cinephiles in the 1990s was David Kerekes and David Slater's 'Killing for Culture: An Illustrated History of Death Film from Mondo to Snuff'. Along with mondo shockumentaries and films like Peeping Tom and Emannuelle in America, which fictionalised the concept of the snuff film, the book delved into cases of real life deaths which had been captured on film or broadcast live on TV, like the on-air suicides of Bud Dwyer and Christine Chubbuck. I recall being disturbed by reading an account of a child's drowning at a public beach in the Netherlands, which was said to have been coldly filmed by a couple of bystanders on their camcorders. How could somebody's first instinct in a moment of tragedy be to hit record on a camera? Cut to 2024.

The sort of caught-on-film tragedies that were written about as almost mythical in 'Killing for Culture' are now everyday occurrences, fodder for social media algorithms, surfacing into our feeds like the gnawed off leg of a swimmer in shark infested waters. Since being bought out by Elon Musk, Twitter (or "X" if you insist) is awash with accounts dedicated to deaths captured on camera. The more elaborate the demise, the more views it will get. One wonders how the upcoming reboot of the Final Destination series will be able to compete.

Civil War review

Years after reading about it in 'Killing for Culture', but before it was readily accessible on the internet, I found myself in possession of a VHS tape containing the Bud Dwyer footage. The first time I watched it I was properly freaked out, not so much by the act itself, but by the reaction of the camera operator, who zoomed right in to a close up of the disgraced politician's brains oozing out of his skull (this was being broadcast in the middle of the afternoon!). Like the father who forces his son to smoke a full pack of cigarettes to cure his nicotine curiosity, I rewatched the Dwyer footage several times so as to become immune to it, so I could sleep that night. They say tragedy plus time equals comedy, but tragedy multiplied leads to indifference. Especially if you view tragedy through a screen. I wish it weren't so, but nothing shocks me now, at least not on screen.

Alex Garland's Civil War is about how viewing tragedy through a screen makes us numb to it. It focusses on war photographers, who shuffle through warzones while staring through viewfinders, simultaneously in the middle of horror and yet detached from it by a rectangular glass shield. It features soldiers and civilian rebels who find it easier to kill the enemy because the weapons they use create a similar remove. Unlike conflicts of old, where you had to stare in the enemy's face as you drove a blade through his belly, now you just have to look through a screen and pull a trigger from a mile away. Hell, you can drop a bomb on a wedding in Iraq from the comfort of an air-conditioned portacabin in Arizona.

Civil War imagines an America some 20 years in the future that has been plunged into a conflict between Washington and several secessionist states. Much to everyone's surprise, Garland isn't interested in reflecting America's current culture war in his fictional conflict. Civil War has as much relation to real life American politics as Planes, Trains and Automobiles has to America's transport networks. In both films' cases, all that matters is their respective instability. It could easily have been set in a nation that is currently experiencing a civil war, but let's face it, a lot more cinemagoers are going to show up for a movie that features choppers attacking the White House than one set in Sudan or Myanmar.

The film chronicles how two war photographers deal with their indifference to the suffering around them. A 20-year veteran, Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst) has seen it all. She doesn't seem to care anymore, but she seems to care that she doesn't care. Her numbness eats away at her insides. When a fellow shutterbug asks if she would photograph her corpse should she meet an untimely end, without missing a beat Lee replies "What do you think?", but she says it with a resignation that suggests she isn't happy that this is now how she views the world. Conversely, college graduate Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) is just starting out on her career documenting atrocities. Jessie ends up tagging along with Lee, journalist Joel (Wagner Moura) and elderly writer Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) as they make the dangerous journey to Washington DC where they hope to interview the president (Nick Offerman) before he's killed by the secessionist forces making their way to the capital.

Civil War review

The quartet come across various atrocities, and find themselves in some life-threatening situations. Initially Jessie is so disturbed she can't bring herself to raise her camera, but as the journey progresses she finds that the very act of raising her camera to her eyes makes the horrors easier to process. They're no longer real, just images, which she can control. By the end she's grinning from ear to ear as she photographs a chopper firing its cannons into a downtown DC building. The film's marketing may centre Dunst but it's really Jessie's story, and Spaeny is as remarkable here as she was in the title role of Sofia Coppola's Priscilla. She's become the go-to girl for filmamkers wishing to portray a corruption of innocence, a hardening of the soul.

Garland takes Truffaut's old maxim about every war movie being pro-war because it's difficult not to make war seem exciting onscreen and gleefully runs with it. The idea of America, or any country, being plunged into a violent internal conflict is horrific, but the image of a chopper firing missiles at the White House? Come on, that's fucking awesome! This rush is largely reflected in the reactions of Moura's Joel, for whom every new atrocity he gets to document is another injection of adrenaline. At one point he tells Jessie that his job means he's unable to sleep, not because he's haunted by a guilty conscience, but because he's always so amped at the prospect of what the next day might bring.

Garland leaves it up to the viewer to decide whether Lee and her colleagues are a bunch of evil ghouls profitting from others' misery or heroes doing important work. What it gets wrong about war photographers however is how Lee and co. focus on capturing the most gruesome images. In reality such professionals are all too aware that images of that nature won't sell because nobody is willing to publish them, so instead they find the image that best gets the message across in a palatable way that won't put the reader off their breakfast.

Civil War review

Civil War made me think about how I grew up just down the road from a civil war where being the wrong type of Christian on the wrong street could get you murdered, but it seemed a million miles away because it only existed on TV, whereas the current conflicts in Syria and Ukraine feel much closer to home because I see its victims wandering around the streets of my town when I pop out to the shops; there's no glass screen between myself and the latter.

In Civil War's most tense scene, Lee and co. find their lives threatened by a gun-wielding rogue soldier played menacingly by Jesse Plemons, who asks "what type of Americans" they are. Even this character is viewing Hell through a rectangular screen, in this case a pair of rose-tinted glasses.

Civil War
 is in UK/ROI cinemas from April 11th.

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