Dean’s pick of the month

Civil. War. Horror.

by Dean Patrick

There’s a consensus going around that Christopher Nolan is our greatest living director. It’s a hard case to argue against with his Dark Knight Trilogy, Interstellar, and last year’s Oscar Magnus Opus, Oppenheimer. I went into Civil War hoping to make the case for Alex Garland being at that level. His three previous films, Ex Machina, Annihilation, and Men are saturated with tension as well as the breathtaking quest for good vs evil. I had high hopes that Civil War would bring the director’s canon closer to Nolan.

It didn’t.

Had Civil War gone full-throttle for the first hour – as any war film must – it could have easily been Garland’s greatest effort. Fortunately for Garland, as the first hour ends, Jesse Plemons enters the story and lights the screen on the level of fire it should have been lit from the opening.

Plemons plays a red sunglasses-wearing, super-amped psycho soldier who is terrifying in his brutal nature toward anyone and anything that is not in alignment with his thinking. His supportive role is so explosive that it never leaves you. I’ll get to that in a bit, but it’s a problem as the whole film could have taken this same level of intensity. That it doesn’t is a true loss of opportunity.

That’s not to say Civil War isn’t without brilliant moments (especially the Plemons scene) and has a compelling storyline. But first, let’s handle Garland’s refusal to take a political stance. This is the primary issue most reviewers and critics have with the film. Garland’s neutral position forces the viewer to take note that it’s about a group of journalists who have only one objective: cover what is happening in the war and nothing more. This kind of position shouldn’t be forced upon us. When it is, it’s impossible to choose a side, and in war – especially a civil war – sides MUST be chosen. At least from a narrator’s perspective.

It’s understandable that Garland wanted politics out of it. One reason is to show that a lot of what takes place in this film is already happening in our country in real time. This film simply takes things to the next level and serves up a warning of what will happen if things continue to spiral out of control with all the hate and rage that is now a daily theme in our society. Another reason could be to show how journalism needs to change its course from a propaganda machine into one where its roots are founded in the art of reporting straight news.

The story opens somewhere at the possible end of The United States’ Second Civil War. The two sides: The Western Front (headed by California and Texas, with Florida that is falling), and The US Government.

A team of journalists (headliner Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, and Cailee Spaeny) is the story’s centerpiece whose job, as I referenced, is straight reporting and showing what is going on, where it’s going on, and how things are progressing. The “why” doesn’t matter, and again, is a problem. Even though we are in the battle, we have no idea why. We are fighting for our freedom, but freedom of what, exactly? Garland attempts to tell a story in similar fashion as such films like Salvador with James Woods, or The Killing Fields with Haing Ngor and John Malkovich, or even Apocalypse Now with Brando and Duvall. But Civil War’s gaping misstep that those films didn’t make is its failure to immerse us in battle and the horrors of battle.

That is until Jesse Plemons’ scene which is why it’s worth some expansion. After the team of journalists is separated because of a reckless decision made by the Spaeny character, Dunst and Moura know they must find her as things suddenly grow far too quiet. They end up finding their colleague with Plemons and his team of guerilla warfare soldiers as Plemons has bodies dumped from an oversized dump truck into a mass grave. From here Plemons takes over the movie with shocking brutality and effectiveness. This scene alone is worth the price of admission, but it’s also here where Garland failed to use such performances to help drive the story. In his previous films the actors were fully committed: Oscar Isaac in Ex Machina, Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Lee in Annihilation, and Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear in Men. Kirsten Dunst does what she can with Civil War, but it’s her real-life husband, Plemons, who is the only real driving force – and it’s far too short-lived.

A few final thoughts I want to mention. As an American watching Civil War there was something deeply unsettling to watch our Capitol being blown to pieces, the White House filled with soldiers killing each other in glee while The Western Forces eventually blast their way through to get to the president. There are scenes where camps are set up and football stadiums turned into dystopian landscapes of hopelessness. Watching such scenes made me realize that regardless how much we may despise politicians and ideologies and a biased media, murdering each other in the streets no matter what the cost, is a future I pray never happens.

Releasing Civil War this year was a high risk for Garland, and for that he should be applauded. We are a country and a people in severe distress. During my lifetime I have never seen such hate and division. We live in a time when someone makes a wrong gesture, or a wrong statement and they are instantly destroyed. Drive on the freeways for only a short time and the feeling of time bombs next to you is far more real than we’ve ever realized. These are harsh and ugly days when evil is the ruling class. It’s the driving force behind my own work and my next book due out later this year. We are in real-time horror, and choosing a side is no longer an option: it’s a mandate. Hopefully it doesn’t become the mandate where bullets completely replace discussion. Maybe Garland’s message is we are far too close to oblivion and must turn course immediately.

Enjoy my fine readers!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *