The Truth has No Teeth: ‘Civil War’ Review

Is 'Quasi-Dystopian Roadtrip' a Genre Now?

Alex Garland’s Civil War presents a near-future dystopian United States at a time when the United States exists, in reality, as an increasingly dystopian colonial empire at the precipice of collapse. It uses the presently divisive state of American politics to draw audiences in to watch a movie about how much more divisive it can be. It’s a very polished and well-designed movie that delivers a masterclass on neutrality during wartime at a time when, in reality, neutrality enables widescale oppression and terrorism. It talks about any number of things but doesn’t explain anything.

Civil War follows a crew of journalists documenting the potential final days of the United States as we know it. The United States is now divided into four factions. Texas and California have seceded from the country to form the Western Forces and are gathering troops to take on the US military. The journalists are heading to the last stronghold of the federal government, Washington, DC – as it is planned to be besieged by the Western Forces.

Civil War
Kirsten Dunst as wartime journalist Lee Smith. Image courtesy of A24.

There aren’t too many plot holes in this movie, but the ones that exist are looming and overshadow any of the intensity, sentimentality, and emotion this movie wants to leave audiences with. Like, ‘Why is this conflict even happening?’ At no point in the movie does it become clear how these two states (which have no grounded explanation for a political allegiance or alliance) would agree to a coup. We’re given a little information from an interview with the President (played by Nick Offerman) with a quickfire session of questions about a third term and drone strikes on American soil (which already happened IRL). We can start and stop right there, but we’re not.

Civil War follows Lee, Joel, Sammy, and Jesse as a ragtag group of journalists en route to the last real news story left. Joel (played by Wagner Moura) and Sammy (acting legend Stephen McKinley Henderson) are reporters who explore the nature of asking the questions that make people think rather than coming to the door with their own biases. Lee (Kirsten Dunst) and Jesse (Cailee Spaeny) are photojournalists, looking to take the picture that makes people ask questions in place of asking the questions themselves.

Civil War
Gang’s all here. L. to R: (Stephen McKinley Henderson, Kirsten Dunst, Cailee Spaeny, Wagner Moura). Image courtesy of A24.

The art of journalism lies in its integrity. That ‘integrity’ is achieved by leaving a bias behind and seeking ‘the’ truth. Not one truth. Not ‘your’ truth. A universal truth. That truth is missing from this movie. It’s a piece of fiction, so we shouldn’t go looking for the answers to life in it. However, the movie is grounded in and was marketed as (blame the trailers for that) a reality so close to our own that it comes as a slap in the face of the audience’s intelligence to be faced with the absence of that truth. Instead, we follow the inaction and neutrality of their profession. Through the lens of journalism, Civil War dodges every truth about the ties between politics and war. It treats them the way we would a natural disaster, without any real questioning as to why it ever came to pass. It gets chalked up to some phantom dictatorial event that led to a President’s third term (and the disbanding of the FBI) and never explored beyond that.

The performances are great, so many great actors in a small cast make it easy for them to play. Jesse Plemons as a nationalist xenophobe in rose-colored glasses makes the skin crawl in the best way. That man plays no games in any role. Another thing it does well is go hard for neutrality using the ‘intimate distance’ of photography. Lee digs for the shocking, impactful image that can define a moment while Jesse looks to capture the capturing of that same moment. Civil War does well with defining the distance some people have to the urgent issues they are facing. Some of the strongest scenes of the movie are punctuated by stills ‘taken’ by Lee and Jesse during climatic moments.

Civil War
Jesse Plemons is unsettlingly brilliant in this scene. Image courtesy of A24.

Parables around things like neutrality are damning as the film hit theaters while an active genocide, global collusion to empower the genociding forces, mass protests, increased police violence, and the least believed-in American political candidates in an election year are all front and center in the public consciousness. More damning still is that despite a theme exploring the relationship between the ‘intimate distance’ of photography and the neutrality of journalism throughout the movie, it still finds time to highlight Black characters being brutalized onscreen with greater detail than most.

Despite everything it pretended to bring to the table with the trailer, Civil War has no teeth. In its attempt to be a sounding board to the times, it ends up being kind of oblivious as a piece of media. There’s a scene early on where a Black man is being beaten, restrained, and set on fire with Lee standing a few feet away clicking pictures. It left me with a feeling in the pit of my stomach. An ache and pang I’ve felt when I’ve seen police violence enacted on civilians surrounded by throngs of people with phones who outnumber the police. The look in the eye of someone who knows they can get away with murder because of the inaction or neutrality of others brings me to this Max Eastman quote every time: “People who demand neutrality in any situation are usually not neutral but in favor of the status quo.” Civil War feels so much like a demand for neutrality, lest we lose our blessed, stable ‘normality’.

Civil War
Portrait of a third term president. Image courtesy of A24.

There was such an opportunity for this movie to talk about substantive and pervasive concerns. Instead, it sits like a status quo parable at a time when the status quo is so harmful. Maybe it came out at a bad time. Maybe it isn’t self-aware enough to know that. Maybe folks tried to capitalize on real-life pain and suffering to make a point they weren’t equipped to make. Either way, this movie comes across as a feckless attempt to say…something… and misses the mark.

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  • Poet, MC, Nerd, All-Around Problem. Lover of words, verse, and geek media from The Bronx, NYC.

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