‘Civil War’ captures society in collapse

By Kirk Boxleitner
Posted 4/17/24



As an act of filmmaking, A24's "Civil War" constitutes a fascinatingly skillful sleight-of-hand.

The dialogue parcels out tidbits about a third-term president (Nick …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

‘Civil War’ captures society in collapse




As an act of filmmaking, A24's "Civil War" constitutes a fascinatingly skillful sleight-of-hand.

The dialogue parcels out tidbits about a third-term president (Nick Offerman), and factions that include the "Western Forces" of California and Texas, as well as the "Florida Alliance," but these are all misdirections, like a magician distracting spectators from spotting how their tricks work.

Like H.P. Lovecraft's allusive non-descriptions of eldritch abominations which relied on readers' imaginations to scare themselves, or George Lucas' deftly restrained references to non-events like the "Clone Wars" in the original "Star Wars" trilogy before he made the mistake of fleshing them out in his prequels, "Civil War" tasks its viewers with filling in the gaps that it's deliberately left wide open in the world-building of its own dystopian near-future political scenario.

Our president is never named, and none of the traditional alignments of "Democrat," "Republican," "liberal" or "conservative" are ever mentioned, nor are any of the much-debated social, political or economic issues that have proven so divisive over the past 75 years.

If you're going into "Civil War" expecting any degree of coherent explanation for how this internecine conflict got started, then to quote the chilled-out ski instructor from "South Park," you're gonna have a bad time, but fortunately, that's not the actual point of this exercise.

Whomever we might imagine fired the first shot, or struck the first blow, or even why they might have been motivated to do so, in the fictional future history of "Civil War," what matters is its depictions of what would most likely happen as a result of those acts, even though most of what we see is shamelessly drawn from the same set of real-life events that almost inevitably befall any country which collapses into a civil war.

But again, that's part of the whole point of "Civil War," is to show us how the once-United States could descend to the level of any number of so-called "Third World" countries, whose national misfortunes are viewed less sympathetically by many of those who are currently more fortunate.

Our on-the-ground perspective is provided by a quartet of journalists who have banded together to travel from New York City to Washington, D.C., in the hopes of securing an interview with the incumbent president, before he's expected to be overthrown by the Western Forces' military.

Former child actress Kirsten Dunst wears her middle-aged maturity well, as an award-winning but weary war photographer, who's none too keen to mentor Cailee Spaeny, as an admiring, aspiring, wide-eyed successor to her career, while Wagner Moura strikes a balance between Oscar Isaac and Pedro Pascal, as the Han Solo-esque "body man" who watches their backs.

It should surprise no one that I found it easiest to empathize with Stephen McKinley Henderson, as the heavyset veteran newspaper writer who moves slow but remains stubbornly in the game.

Each correspondent's viewpoint contributes distinct insights to our overall grasp of this intentionally scattershot collection of scenes from an ongoing revolution that everyone involved seems to agree is finally winding down to a resolution, one way or another.

Beyond this film's provocative flashpoints of graphic violence, from a suicide bomber on the city streets, to looters beaten bloody and strung up by their wrists, plus all the volleys of gunfire and unflinching execution shots by competing factions of militias, "Civil War" is equally effective in depicting the entropic erosion of American society through its more subdued breakdowns.

Our reporters groan as their hotel suffers from recurring power brown-outs, and pay to refuel their vehicle at a rural gas station by handing a wad of 300 Canadian dollars to men with rifles slung over their shoulders. They visit a small town whose crumbling, graffiti-covered stadium has been converted into a refugee camp, with tents and campfires in metal drums, run by folks wearing what I'm guessing are meant to resemble blue United Nations vests.

Throughout their journey, there is a terrible beauty interwoven through the traumas incurred by their experiences, as lying flat to avoid a holed-up sniper forces one of our lenswomen down to eye-level with a grass-high wildflower, that's bowing from the weight of its tiny blossom, while driving through a woodland blaze causes its glowing embers to dash against the windows of our press corps' vehicle, like a swarm of fireflies.

It reminded me of my evenings onboard USS Theodore Roosevelt, when I would watch aircraft take off from our carrier's flight deck, and the warmth from their afterburners would float up to our outdoor observation deck, because it imparted a strange sense of serenity, even knowing those jets were heading out to drop bombs on enemy forces.

Because there is a surreal disconnect that comes from choosing to be at the eye of the storm, that "Civil War" captures with a lived-in authenticity.

And if writer-director Alex Garland hadn't already earned my approval for his work on a number of previous films — Danny Boyle's "28 Days Later" and "Sunshine," 2012's "Dredd," 2014's "Ex Machina," 2018's "Annihilation" and 2022's "Men" — he would have won me over with this film's nods to Rob Steiger's silent scream in 1964's "The Pawnbroker."

"Civil War" remains solidly worth watching, all the way through its final killer lines of dialogue and its haunting closing photographic image.