Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Apr 17, 2024 9:20 am 
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Memorable mayhem saves Garland's patchy picture of America at war with itself

It's a little surprising that Civil War is only Alex Garland's fourth film as a director. His influence was felt well before his first one, The Beach, which bombed despite the energy and fresh stardom of post-Titanic DiCaprio. His novels and screenplays and collaborations with Danny Boyle account for the additional spread of Garland's brand of mayhem and unease. 

There is plenty of those here.  What could be worse for Americans, than to see the country at war with itself, self-destructing?   It's our worst nightmare, and one that seems presently closer than at almost any other time, though things are very far from the total mayhem and destruction envisaged in Garland's movie.

And yet the situation is muted, to good effect, because it creeps up on you.    Only a few basic essentials are sketched in, though there is a loud, gut-wrenching finale that takes place in Washington.  This isn't a grand scale action picture. but instead works crabwise - only achieving a gut-wrenching, edge-or-your-seat level of violence in the finale moments. 

Mostly this is about what it's like to be a combat journalist, particularly a photographer.  There's a quartet of characters, an old guy newsman, Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson),  and Joel (Wagner Moura), a younger one, a mature and famous woman photographer, Lee (Kirsten Dunst), and  a 23-year-old eager girl wannabe, Jessie (Callee Spaeny)  the older woman doesn't want to allow in the car because it's too dangerous. In the event, Jessie learns fast, and her transformation is the movie's most interesting character development.

All we know is that there is a western states opposition made up of California and Texas, which is moving in on Washington.  We glimpse the President (Nick Offerman), who is at pains to say everything id going fine, and order is close to being restored.  It isn't.  But there are pockets of relative order where people can wear blinders and pretend none of this nightmare is happening - if they don't look up to the rooftops along a little town's main street and notice the snipers lined up there.  Both women photographer's folks, in Colorado and Missouri, are like that, in denial.

The quartet sets out on a journey from New York to D.C., hoping to interview the president while there still is one - a crabwise trajectory due to the dangerous situation, so it will be close to 900 miles instead of the usual 250-300.

Various disturbing incidents occur.  A comrade gets shot dead right before their eyes.  Looters are hanging by their arms waiting for lawless men to decide what to do with them.  One soldier in red tinted sunglasses (Jesse Plemons) holds the power of life or death over all comers, to be decided at whim by where they are from.

The sense of disorder is very well conveyed.  Here is a movie where big effects and budget might only spoil things.  The same principle applies that makes George Romero's Night of the Living Dead and Shane Carruth's Primer so effective on a minimal budget.  Money produces an effect of  control despite itself.    The ensemble acting of the four leads is also fine.

But a lot is left out here.   There's not only no attempt to show what's going on all over the country, but no explanation of how the ideological lines are drawn or what led things to reach this extreme: it just is, and the journalists' job is not to reason why, only to shoot good photographs.  Interestingly, the younger photographer is shooting film, which seems stylish but wildly impractical. 

Even details of the reporting, who they are working for and how the photos are being sent, are left vague. 
So in the end we are provided with almost nothing but a sense of disorder.  And yet we realize how effectively such a feeling can be provided with minimal means.  And the more maximal scenes that occur in the shocking finale also provide a kind of satisfaction, that of an ending.  Imagine Chile 1973 and you'll have some idea. 

Civil War, 109 mins., debuted at Austin (SXSW) Jan. 16, 2024, opening in many countries in April. Its release by A24 has made box office history for the distributor. Metacritic rating: 75%.

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