REVIEW | Civil War, directed by Alex Garland

Refugee camps, mass graves, summary executions and unpredictable military encounters. This is not Gaza or the Ukraine. It is the United States in a few years’ time in Alex Garland’s latest devastating film, Civil War. A US President forcibly installed for a third term has disbanded the FBI, turned drones and helicopters against protesters and executed journalists. California and Texas have formed the Western Alliance and declared secession from the federal government and a bloody civil war has erupted. Garland denies that the President is a depiction of Trump but it is impossible not to picture him in this role.

The film lacks a clear ideological content to the forces involved, but with a little imagination it is possible to see which side is defending what. Told through the eyes of a group of photo-journalists who undertake to journey across the country to Washington D.C., they encounter all of the horrors of war. The veteran photo-journalist Lee, played by Kirsten Dunst, heads the pack alongside her partner Joel, played by Wagner Moura. They are joined by a young Jessie, initially resented by Lee, and the older veteran journalist Sammy, played by Stephen Henderson, who, drawing on his long experience tries to keep the group away from the more violent risks.

That the film, with such a title, is released now, says much about the discourse and polarisation in US society at the present time and the possible re-election of Trump. Whilst the film exaggerates what can unfold, features of what the film depicts are present and will be magnified should Trump win another term.

The political discourse in the film is limited to say the least, yet it is gripping, and shocking in what it depicts. The use of sound techniques is exceedingly dramatic. The intimidating fear of the whirl of helicopter blades and tanks rolling through the streets will be fully recognised by those who have witnessed such scenes. It is hard hitting. The scene of a mass grave of those executed by a racist paramilitary interrogating the main characters is shocking but all too realistic, as are other scenes. The realistic violence and unpredictability of being in war zones and social confrontations is palpable. It depicts US society collapsing in a dystopian nightmare. Some are in denial and just pretend it is not happening. What is absent are the mass of the population and their involvement.

The film uses good techniques. There are no opening scenes or introduction. We go straight to one of only two performances from the President. A speech at the opening and a promise of victory and a short scene in the White House at the end are the only appearances the President makes. Joel asks him for a quote. “Don’t let them kill me” the President replies to which Joel responds, “That will do”.

It is a gripping film. The explicit violence will shock and upset but it is brutally realistic of what war is like. It exaggerates probable upheavals should Trump win, but who knows, yet it is extremely symptomatic that Civil War has been released at this time.

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April 2024