Civil War. Distributed by A24
Civil War. Distributed by A24

Brutally realistic war film set in a future United States

Tony Saunois, CWI secretary

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 Donald 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 photojournalists who undertake to journey across the country to Washington DC, they encounter all of the horrors of war. The veteran photojournalist 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.

Nail-biting war film following photojournalists lacks political voice

Sam Ward, Leicester Socialist Party

Civil War, much like its war photographer protagonists, chooses not to take sides.

Depicting a fictional US civil war in the near-future, the atrocities portrayed by various factions are never attributed to one side or the other. An event called the ‘antifa massacre’ is mentioned in passing, but the audience never knows more than this. Was it an atrocity committed by or against anti-fascists?

For me, therein lies the problem with Civil War. The name drop of ‘Portland Maoists’, while amusing, rang alarm bells of post-Capitol attack liberal panic. While technically sound, British director Alex Garland’s film lacked a political voice. It is a universal understanding that ‘war is bad’. The moral handwringing of a centrist filmmaker doesn’t shed any further light on this.

The film goes to great lengths to inspire sympathy towards the journalists on their journey through war-stricken USA. However, I found it hard to sympathise with those that are following the ‘action’. The character played by Cailee Spaeny, a young, up-and-coming war photographer, was a particularly trying figure. Though there is little wrong with the performance, the character is unrealistically naïve, speaking like someone who hasn’t lived in a country that has been at war with itself for a number of years. We live in a world where we see the horrors of war every day on social media. How is it that she has no idea what she is getting into?

That is not to say that the film doesn’t have great sequences, Jesse Plemons stuns for the ten minutes that he is on-screen in a nail-bitingly tense scene that echoes far better films.

During press for the release of Civil War, Alex Garland mentioned films that he had the cast watch before shooting the film. One of those films was Come and See, a Soviet, anti-war, anti-fascist classic by Elem Klimov. Civil War and Come and See are incomparable. Civil War sits on the sidelines, while Come and See does a far better job in portraying the horrors of war by showing the effect that it has on those caught up in it, particularly the children that it focuses on. It doesn’t sensationalise, it is a true anti-war film, which Civil War isn’t.

While photojournalism is important and a necessity when recording war, I do think that the film overstates their importance. It is those on the ground, the working class caught in the middle of conflict, that suffer and deserve more than a ‘good’ picture on the front of the morning papers.

Civil War is currently in cinemas, distributed by A24