Thursday, April 18, 2024

Civil War (Alex Garland, 2024)

This means war

Alex Garland's Civil War is set in the near future (from Max Headroom: "20 minutes into the future") but traces its roots to the recent past, particularly films on journalists or photojournalists wading into war zones trying to catch the story: Under Fire, The Year of Living DangerouslyThe Killing FieldsSalvador.

There's a hint of nostalgia in the idea that photojournalism would be at the forefront of a breaking conflict: nowadays you expect news in the form of cable or streaming video (CNN, BBC), or even radio, which unaccountably survives if not exactly thrives (NPR, again BBC). The photojournalist with khaki vest and pockets stuffed with film rolls and lenses seems an almost antiquated figure, and one can't help asking: "How do these folks manage to survive? How are they still relevant?"

I think the film answers second question without directly answering: photojournalists and old-fashioned journalism would thrive-- maybe not now, but sometime soon-- in a chaotic world, one where the system has broken down and wifi in the countryside is spotty at best: several times Lee (Kirsten Dunst) has trouble having her pictures uploaded, grumbling as she waits. Younger photojournalist Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) is even more old school: she insists on using not digital but 35 mm film, fussing with focus and f stops and so on, complaining that most of her shots are blurred; Lee reassures her, saying one usable shot out of 30 is about par for the course. 

More embarrassing is that when push comes to shove Jessie chokes and fails to take a shot. This is American maybe not twenty minutes but a few years into the future, where the president is barricaded in the White House while Texas and California have united (?!)* to overthrow the government-- the presidential speech opening the film shows a leader out of touch with reality, bragging about a great victory in the face of imminent defeat. Lee hopes to interview said president, traveling with Reuters journalist Joel (Wagner Moura) and Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), New York Times' veteran reporter and Lee's mentor, but they can't take the relatively direct route from New York City to DC which is blocked by Loyalist forces: they must travel all the way west to Pittsburgh, down to West Virginia, try make their haphazard and hazardous way to the capital. And Jessie by charming Joel has elected to tag along, much to Lee's dismay-- bad enough she feels obligated to give Sammy a lift (he as he's the first to admit is old and slow and likely to get in the way) but now she must babysit a snotnosed cameraman using antediluvian tech. 

*(Startling but not impossible: there are streaks of blue in the quintessentially red Southern state, and enclaves of conservatism in the West Coast state)

Along the way Garland drives home the point that this isn't the United States you know in as chilling a manner as possible: the group stops for gas at a station run by armed men and Jessie spots a nearby car wash with-- something-- inside. She wanders off and is faced with two men hanging from the car wash fixtures, bloodied and apparently dead-- Spaeny, who's 25, looks like a shaken sixteen-year-old staring up at the pair. Later she berates herself for failing to take a picture, and Lee talks of keeping a clear head: "Once you start asking those questions you can't stop." Jessie asks: if she's ever killed would Lee take a picture of her corpse? Lee looks at her. "What do you think?"

Garland avoids giving us much of the context leading up to the war, sidesteps much of the difficulties of creating an alternate future: this is the way things are, he tells us, and journalists have to do their best negotiating through this world. It's a grunt's (or bug's) eye view, and we follow the rising or plummeting fortunes of this little group while Garland fills the margins with details: survivor camps run by hippie types, offering thoughtful if threadbare hospitality; soldiers peer through sniperscopes at silently defended mansions, not knowing who they're dealing with or why; paramilitary groups sprinkle lime into mass burial pits and quiz passersby on their nationality: "Are you American? What part of America do you come from?" 

Another film that comes to mind: Coppola's Apocalypse Now. Soldiers not journalists, boat not four-wheel-drive, but it's the same casually structured journey up the river or down the road headed for the film's heart of darkness (might add that  of the two figures our heroes ultimately encounter, Brando's candlelit bulk is visually more impressive than what we get here). I'm actually not a big fan of Apocalypse-- the filmmaking is mindblowing but for all the money thrown at the big screen not half as demented as Werner Herzog's Aguirre the Wrath of God made seven years before, where the heart of that film's darkness and its imperialist hero are one and the same. Still, Garland manages to make us feel for the characters, be invested in their uncertain fates so when one is threatened-- Jessie, Lee, Joel, Sammy, or all four at once-- we find ourselves digging fingers into our armrests in the hopes they make it out all right. 

The film is no Salvador-- I miss Richard Boyle's irrepressibly profane humor, as written by Stone and interpreted in rapid-fire cadence by James Woods. Boyle was cynical and funny, and the cynicism helped sell you his hidden idealism, helped sharpen the horror of his experiences. Garland does hold one trump card over Stone's masterpiece: that took place in a distant South American country (albeit one with the United States' fingerprints all over it); this is recognizable roads and everyday stores and familiar folk all twisted out of recognition by the film's one clever conceit: that it's the future where all men are brothers involved in wholesale fratricide. 

A horror film, Paul Schrader in a Facebook post calls it: I assume he too was shaken by the familiarity and strangeness of it all. I'd call this Garland's best directorial job to date-- Ex Machina was a well made even sexy film debut, but Annihilation was a less than impressive reworking of JG Ballard's The Crystal World. Here Garland feels more surefooted, staging firefights  with effortless clarity, stretching tension to unbearable lengths, tossing off effects-- like the forest-fire sparks that swirl round Lee and Joel's passing vehicle-- so their incidental beauty lingers in memory. 

Troubles me that the far right has claimed this picture, grooving to the sight of an old man dragged from under his executive desk (tho Garland is careful to point out said executive's disregard for constitution and reality). Extremists do have a point: Garland's film scrupulously avoids identifying with one side or another, hoping to position itself as a cautionary tale for both-- is the film so careful it allows itself to be appropriated by one side? Has Garland thrown one log too many in the fire? I'm thinking of Lee's declared stance of not asking too many questions, just keep shooting and let the future judge its own. Is she right? Is Jessie, or Sammy? Are we to take their side, or do their own unthinking actions undermine their words? Maybe that's the film's real (if unintended) takeaway: if Lee and Jessie's role in the world is to shoot first ask questions later, we're meant to look first-- at Garland's film, at Lee and Jessie's imagery-- and never stop asking questions. 

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