Friday 12 April 2024

Fallout: "Civil War"

I'm so old I can remember when all the movies traditionally had to treat us to in an American election year was one of those tatty
Purge runarounds. (The strongest of those, 1908's Purge: Exegesis, directly led to the election of William Henry Taft.) Post January 6, the cinema has clearly decided it has to raise its game on the alarming spectacle front. Civil War presents as the Tesco Finest version of a Purge movie, brought to you by the boutique studio A24 and screenwriter-turned-fitful director Alex Garland (Ex Machina, Annihilation, Men), himself attempting to step up from genre tinkering to Serious Social Commentary. I say serious commentary, although it's a bit lowering to discover all Civil War's social commentary amounts to is really no more than a sighed "cripes, America's in a pickle nowadays". Still, there are compensations. Garland's film proposes a none-too-distant future where Texas, California and Florida have seceded from the wider United States due to irreconciliable political differences, leading to trouble on almost every street corner. We enter into this newly turbulent environment embedded among its journalists, principally Kirsten Dunst's battle-hardened snapper Lee, obliged to both watch and duck for cover as the kind of skirmishes her movie predecessors documented overseas in 1983's Under Fire and 1997's Welcome to Sarajevo suddenly break out on Main Street, in the vicinity of a J.C. Penney's. Lee's declared mission is to travel with her cohort from New York to Washington, where the nation's shit-stirring President (Nick Offerman, becoming as grimly typecast as bad ol' good ol' boys as Chris Pratt has been as bland action heroes) has lain uninterrogated for fourteen months. One of several obstacles, we're told early on, is that in this Washington, they now shoot journalists on sight, which must at least make a merciful change from being routinely laid off in favour of AI chatbots.

The strengths and limitations Civil War subsequently reveals can all be traced back to a discussion about this mission two or three scenes in: they're a gamer's vision of widespread social unrest. CW goes big on the spectacle of modern carnage - deserted streets, a Godardian logjam of abandoned vehicles, downed helicopters and fallen bodies, spurting wounds and freshly dug corpse pits - and Garland gives good siege, standoff and shootout. But he's forever more alert to movement than causality and consequence; "we're just passing through" is a phrase the journos proffer as a get-out-of-jail-free card, and that's exactly what the film is doing, en route to a finale that plays more like a technical flex (this is how I'd have stormed the White House) than a properly satisfying or challenging dramatic conclusion. In the end, everything passes through your ears, never to be thought of again. If the film nevertheless represents a step up on the various Purges, that's because a) low bar, b) better marshalled bang for your buck, and c) you're watching faces you recognise on appreciable form. Garland's getting better with casting and actors: piled into a bullet-strafed van, a tight-knit ensemble - Dunst and contemporary Wagner Moura, senior adviser Stephen McKinley Henderson, naive apprentice Cailee Spaeny - become a family of sorts. (The in-car bickering suggests Little Miss Sunshine: Death of Democracy Edition.) 

But what they're passing through proves less assured, and the framing is outright questionable at points. This was plainly one of the sunnier shoots of recent times; Civil War makes certain benign Nicholas Sparks films appear overcast in the memory. But I've no idea what Garland is doing setting a mass execution sequence to De La Soul, save reassuring the multiplex crowd that we're here for a good time. Only once, with the midfilm intervention of Dunst's real-life husband Jesse Plemons as a card-checking racist, does Civil War lean fully into the horror of its own premise; otherwise, again, we're just passing through. As a result, Garland's film begins to seem a bit mercenary in its motives, like watching someone opportunistically stripping our malfunctioning political machinery for saleable spare parts, or stealing the lead off the town hall roof. We're not far from the realm of the Purges - but those B-movies hadn't the chutzpah to appropriate news footage of real unrest, and shots of the blood spilled by actual American citizens, for the purposes of ultimately middling disruption tourism. Some are bound to enter big claims on Garland's behalf, much as they have done with his previous features, but Civil War is making no greater statement than a Quiet Place or Walking Dead spinoff that has swapped in senators for their regular boogeymen. You could do worse, this coming Friday and Saturday night. As with the governors who've brought us to this sorry juncture, you could also do a lot better.

Civil War opens today in cinemas nationwide.

No comments:

Post a Comment