thu 30/05/2024

Civil War review - God help America | reviews, news & interviews

Civil War review - God help America

Civil War review - God help America

A horrifying State of the Union address from Alex Garland

Anarchy in the USA: Kirsten Dunst and Cailee Spaeny duck and cover

Alex Garland’s fourth movie as writer/director is a chilling glimpse of an American dystopia, fortuitously timed for the run-up to the forthcoming US elections. However, it steers fastidiously clear of drawing any obvious Trump vs Biden parallels, though it’s difficult to imagine that it hasn’t imbibed any inspiration from the Maga mob’s insurrection at the US Capitol in 2021.

Set in an imaginary near future, it’s the story of a group of news correspondents in the process of covering the civil war raging in the USA, in which the government forces are slugging it out with the Western Alliance, headed by Texas and California. Presumably matching Republican Texas with the Democrat Golden State is Garland's way of sidestepping suspicions of political partisanship.

The struggle is reaching its endgame, as the Alliance closes in on Washington DC. Our journalistic protagonists, writer Joel (Wagner Moura) and fabled photographer Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst), are working on a plan to get from New York to the capital, where they plan to interview the beleaguered President (Nick Offerman, pictured below). Lee reckons it’s the last great scoop left as the final act unfolds.

So it’s a road trip, as our battered and sardonic crew pile into an SUV and set out to drive the 857 miles (as a caption helpfully informs us) to Washington. They’re joined by veteran New York Times writer Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and young, aspiring photographer Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), who idolises Lee for her legendary "Antifa massacre" photo. They take a perilous and circuitous route in which they finally hook up with the Western Alliance forces as they mass in Charlottesville, Virginia, for their final assault.

Their journey is a nightmarish string of scenes liable to lodge disturbingly in the memory. When the press troupe decide to risk trying to buy petrol – or gas, if you will – at a run-down roadside stop manned by menacing gun-toting vigilantes, Jessie nips round the back and discovers a scene of nauseating brutality. A potentially fatal showdown is averted when Lee breaks the ice by taking photos, one of many moments where Garland asks questions about the morality of journalism and whether it’s really possible to disengage impersonally from acts of extreme violence and amoral cruelty.

War is a place where the rules are suspended (although participants may find themselves subject to them being applied retrospectively), which is what makes it such a liberating playground for film-makers and writers. And of course journalists, many of whom have built careers on daring to go into the roaring inferno where carrying a camera or a notebook offers the illusion of immunity to the 360-degree horrors unfolding around them.

Garland also conveys powerfully how rapidly the ties that bind societies together can be ripped apart. Some of the scenes here are a little too reminiscent of The Walking Dead (or indeed the Garland-penned 28 Days Later) as the protagonists have to negotiate existential episodes of sudden danger and indiscriminate killing, not to mention freeways crammed with burned-out wrecks (is this where Bruce Springsteen’s “broken heroes on a last chance power drive” ended up?), but the notion of a catastrophic war being as incomprehensible as an alien invasion or a biological armageddon maybe isn’t that far-fetched. A cameo by Jesse Plemons as a vigilante-soldier crazed by blood-lust is an especially searing moment along the trail.

Garland hasn’t concerned himself too much with the mechanisms of plot, leaving the viewer to fill in the gaps as he blasts the senses with overwhelming visual images and an eerie, unsettling score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, but his action scenes are devastating. Gunfire is shockingly loud and the impact of bullets is viscerally felt. A car-bombing sequence hits so ferociously that it seems to suck the air out of the room, leaving a force-field of silence in its wake. The climactic gathering of the Western Alliance forces is a tumult of battering helicopter rotors, screaming jet fighters and roaring tanks that climbs to an almost unbearable crescendo.

The danger is that all this tends to obliterate whatever meaning Garland was trying to impart, other than war is hell and mankind isn't far removed from beasts. It also leaves the characters struggling to be heard. Dunst is the stand-out here, evoking the carapace of emotionless detachment that a war correspondent probably needs to survive, but suffering cracks in her armour at a crucial juncture. On the other hand, the way Jessie’s character-arc is travelling in the opposite direction is a little too trite for comfort. As for Joel, he gets to deliver a final punchline which almost manages to reduce the entire production to farce. But battle fatigue can do strange things to a man.

A car-bombing sequence hits so ferociously that it seems to suck the air out of the room

rating

Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters