Civil War: Terrifying Vision of Broken America - Echoes of the Final Hour

A war rages between the US government, led by a Donald Trump-style talking head president, and the rebel western powers, consisting of California and Texas

by Sededin Dedovic
Civil War: Terrifying Vision of Broken America - Echoes of the Final Hour
© A24 / Youtube channel

The idea of living in the last days is the backdrop for Alex Garland's new film "Civil War," which promises a spectacle of apocalyptic violence, delivers it in horrifying abundance, and then asks why we watched. The war rages between the American government, led by a president speaking in the style of Donald Trump, and the rebellious Western forces consisting of California and Texas, but we only get the slightest hints about its causes and progress, and without a sense of whether it is just.

The main characters do not take sides. Lee (Kirsten Dunst) and Joel (Wagner Moura) are a photojournalist and a writer traveling from New York to Washington, DC, hoping to interview the president; Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) are an older writer and a younger potential photojournalist traveling together.

Their press credentials allow them to move freely (with some trimmed exceptions), and it's often unclear where they are in relation to the front lines. Both sides have uniformed armies in the field, but there are also militias whose loyalty is unspecified.

Civil War movie© A24 / Youtube channel

The film takes for granted that wars deviate from their stated goals, justly or otherwise, and that civil war involves skirmishes, petty acts of brutal violence that have little or nothing to do with them.

In the first scene of crime, Garland's dramatic focus is not on the militia or the prisoners they torture but on two photographers. Throughout the film, Jessie will learn from Lee – who calmly shoots – to detach and prioritize filming above all else; conversely, Lee's ability to heed her own advice is tested to the limits.

Their relationship constitutes the central story of the film and builds to an inevitable and satisfying conclusion. Garland's interest in depicting the amoral ways of war photographers is matched, if not surpassed, by his interest in the implied consumers of the images they produce, and thus the consumers of violent fantasy images – those that populate films like Civil War.

In one scene, the militia that the main quartet follows kills a wounded soldier as he surrenders, prompting a needle drop form of "Full Metal Jacket" with De La Soul's song "Say No Go." The song continues over a montage sequence in which Jessie finds the courage to separate and photograph the militia machine-gunning their prisoners, photographers, and subjects framed just so, making us aware that our eyes are fixed on her.

Civil War movie© A24 / YOutube channel

In addition to the savage violence at every turn, the feeling of insecurity it induces is equally chilling, with the frequent inability to distinguish between warring sides on the battlefield, and there are also frequent paramilitary groups that often act as though they belong to neither side but rather exercise their own terror over the populace.

Garland doesn't spend much time explaining the situation here either, as he depicts a conflict that has lasted so long (we know the president has served at least three terms by now) that characters' discussions about it would represent excessive exposition that would only harm the narrative and disrupt the aforementioned atmosphere of uncertainty that gives the film an extremely realistic and terrifying tone.

This isn't even the most unsettling moment in the film: later, Jesse Plemons has a terrifying cameo as a government soldier overseeing the filling of a mass grave. Again, it's important how the main characters respond. For Jessie, as she admits herself, danger is life.

Garland's characters, since his 1996 novel "The Beach," have been seekers of extreme experiences, often shaped by environments that are not quite like our own, though not so different that we cannot see something of ourselves in them.

It's mostly communicated without words. Towards the end, as Western forces gather towards the White House in a stunningly realized battle sequence, Jessie and Joel exchange looks expressing their excitement as the gunship fires on the barricades.

After all, what should a 'stunningly realized' battle sequence look and sound like? Maybe like "Apocalypse Now" (1979), which is mentioned in "The Beach" and depicted in Danny Boyle's film adaptation. Or like "White House Down" (2013), Roland Emmerich's conspiracy thriller? The film ends, as it must, with soldiers breaking into the Oval Office, where Jessie gets the opportunity of a lifetime.

Here, Garland uses Suicide's "Dream Baby Dream," a song memorably used in Adam Curtis's "HyperNormalisation" (2016) for the soundtrack montage of clips from 1990s blockbusters showing American cities rising into the air, all hinting at September 11.

"Civil War" is one of the best portrayals of war we've seen in a long time in film. This isn't a war in some distant jungles and deserts but to an American audience "on home turf."

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