Sunday, April 21, 2024

Civil War [dir. Alex Garland]

55 years ago Haskell Wexler, known primarily as a cinematographer (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, In the Heat of the Night, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest), made a film called Medium Cool. Wexler's film was an auteur-driven enterprise, written, photographed edited, co-produced and directed by him. In it, a young Robert Forster (Jackie Brown) played a Chicago TV news cameraman dispassionately capturing sensationalist stories with his 16 mm in the period leading up to the rioting at the Democratic National Convention. While not a period of actual civil war, there was a strong element of unrest among the American people on account of opposition to the Vietnam War and the assassination of Equal Rights activist Martin Luther King. With its nouvelle vague inspired freewheeling journey, Medium Cool captured the zeitgeist of that period in a manner few films have. As critic Vincent Canby says in his review, it portrays "...a picture of America in the process of exploding into fragmented bits of hostility, suspicion, fear and violence."

Alex Garland's Civil War is set in an even more chaotic dystopian near-future, with the White House a fortress occupied by a Fascist dictator and the country torn apart by violent secession. Veteran combat photojournalist Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst) and her comrade Joel (Elite Squad and Narcos fame Wagner Moura) plan to travel from Brooklyn to DC to interview the president. Tagging along is their mentor Sammy (Stephen Henderson). Sammy has played the game a long time, but now he's "too old and fat to run", even to save his life. They have another fellow traveler in Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) a wet-behind-the-ears novice lugging around her father's film camera. Having seen her lose it at a riot event they previously met at, Lee is reluctant to take the girl on board, but Sammy and Joel convince her.

In their road journey to the capital, the group see violence in multiple forms, including armed assault, cruel vigilantism and even mass civilian murder by militia groups. Garland dishes out some mordant humor: The once-almighty US dollar is shown to be hugely devalued ($300 can only buy a ham / cheese sandwich). In a shootout between two bands of snipers, one of the men mockingly answers Joel's question about which faction they are fighting with "The guys trying to shoot us".

While Garland originated as a writer, the most gripping parts of Civil War are the visuals (DoP Rob Hardy, who handled cinematography for Garland's previous features Ex Machina, Annihilation and Men). The scenes of rioting and armed conflict are captured with veritable intensity. Garland also uses the  full height of the IMAX screen, especially noticeable in the scenes where helicopters glide over troubled vistas or during the large scale climactic battle in the capital. The format also gives tremendous depth of field and a 'window effect' into the happenings on screen.

The visuals are sadly undercut by the predictability of the narrative. Where Medium Cool or Oliver Stone's Salvador (also about an American journalist caught in a civil war) echoed the chaos and desperation of unrest and gave it a personal edge, Civil War mostly follows a conventional coming of age drama - Lee is the aging camera-slinger that takes a maternal interest in Jessie (even Joel who is said to be hitting on her never crosses any line) and the youngster in the course of her adventures wises up to emulate her idol (this is contrasted with Lee suddenly losing her nerve during the final conflict). A certain "circle of life" metaphor hinted at early in the narrative is given a groaning realization in the climax.

Don't get me wrong here, Civil War is admirable for its technical audacity - Garland achieves the kind of spectacle that would normally require 2 or 3 times the budget, and he does not trivialize his material with fake heroism. The actors are fine too, adjusting to the physical and emotional needs of their characters. But the rote writing reduces the film's power as a statement on the brutality of civil war.

P.S. If you are seeing the film, make sure to catch it on the largest screen format.

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