‘Civil War’ – An InsiderNJ Movie Review

I’ll confess that as an old, cranky guy I went to the movie Civil War deviously prepared to write a negative review. People told me to go see it, but a few of them also told me to go see Saving Private Ryan, which I regretted – not because it was too violent necessarily but because the filmmaker evidently assumes an America so disconnected from reality that he takes it upon himself to attach shock clamps and turn the power to capacity while collecting millions for his supplied “therapy.”

No doubt in trying to caution me about the horrors of violence while fire-hosing the screen with blood, Civil War would also pander, pontificate, and find new ways of trying to compensate for another dumb American’s inability to simply give up on cinema as an art form and process Wagner. But since this is a political publication and director Alex Garland insists that his film is, at its core, political, I rationalized crawling into the Manville movie house as something on the order of a professional obligation.

A couple of grim-looking old birds with beards, canes, and Vietnam veteran caps and fatigues sat in the semi-dark theater. The three of us waited for the movie to start, as chasms of deepening darkness and noise like the sound of a Hercules Jet landing on top of our skulls made the place suddenly seem like a foxhole of bad dreams.

Civil War begins, of course, with a predictable shower stall of gore, which widened steadily out of a broken spigot until we feel blanketed, shoveled, backhoed, and bulldozed into the celluloid version of Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty. Amid the avalanche of reviews, many of them inevitably treating the movie’s avalanche of violence, critics question Garland’s contention that he made a political movie. In his public statements, the director sometimes impatiently counters interviewers who chastise him for failing to furnish a dividing line of right versus left and decry Civil War’s inability to “take a stand.”

The director claims the real fight – not only in the United States but in his own country, England and elsewhere – is not left versus right, but between moderates and extremists. I heard him say that in a PBS interview before I went to see his movie, but I didn’t find much evidence of this dynamic in a picture that primarily focuses on the SUV interactions of four war reporters.

Against the backdrop of Armageddon, the dramatic divide that most consistently, starkly, and urgently emerges in Civil War concerns the characters played by (New Jersey native!) Kirsten Dunst and Cailee Spaeny. Finally, the movie is a tragedy – in the truest sense – not only about our intergenerational divide (the gulf between those who relate primarily to machines, and those who first relate to other beings – and pay a price), but fundamentally about the divide within the main character. Conscious of the end of the world as she reluctantly takes on the responsibility of mentoring a fledgling professional, veteran combat photographer Dunst struggles to contain her own humanity – that is to say her revulsion with carnage and her empathetic impulse to do more than merely record death – with her decision in the intensification of their trying circumstances, to teach the next generation a trade. That trade by definition requires desensitization to violence, and the critical override of that part of herself, which Dunst persistently tries to hide – the genuine friend, the caring parent, the feeling human presence whose maternal instinct goes beyond her reporter’s instinct to simply file.

The adolescent has apparently a natural aversion to the horrors heaped upon the group, but gradually, under Dunst’s tutelage, she begins to gain confidence and shoot images with abandon. “It’s an amazing shot,” the tough Dunst tells the kid at one point, when she looks it a terrible, deeply disquieting picture reminiscent of Life Magazine’s 1966 “Reaching Out.” Even as she slips into an abyss of uncaring (this carries a double edge, of course, as the job itself, chronicling carnage necessitates caring of a kind, caring about the end of America, at the very least, but this goes mostly unexamined), the kid on several occasions attempts to engage the more human side of her teacher. But Dunst knows she walks a delicate line. In the world that Spaeny will occupy, those virtues of caring, of empathy, the indulgence of drag time to see something more than opportunity to photograph a violent act, will not contribute to the young woman’s professional viability let alone her survival. Those attitudes will merely clutter the job, and likely get her killed, or at least prematurely psychologically unraveled.

No where amid the madness does Garland attempt to make sense of the traumas of fractured America. No where does he attempt a focused dialectic that we can describe as political. He himself records snatches of our societal dislocation and extremism run violently amok. He hints at the gulf between political fiction and fact, when, for example, the president rehearses a pacifying speech while the country crumbles. He lets us know, in another vignette, what he thinks of a racist nutjob who decides to kill two reporters because of their ethnicity. These suggest the beginnings of a political point of view, never developed. Again, I don’t see any evidence in Garland’s movie of moderates trying to make a stand, unless he posits the shell-shocked adrenaline junkie road jockeys as “moderates,” filing reports for a public that no longer consumes news amid an extremist revolt. At best, it’s a stretch.

At its most cynical, catering to the times’ political correctness, or overly conscious of the political volatility of the times, the movie can’t be political without triggering a riot or a mass shooting, so it falls back on the only forms apparently saleable in our failing culture and coughs up a magnificently packaged and presented mishmash of overkill profanity and shocking violence. More frightening than another round of blood and gore is our fear of politics contributing simply a worsening of our current divided condition.

No John Frankenheimer, who made a true political picture called Seven Days in May, more relevant today, and more daring than Civil War, Garland nonetheless does treat in a dedicated dramatic arc – with real cathartic power – the relationship between Dunst and Spaeny, respectively 40 and 20 something, making their intergenerational “civil war” his movie’s crux. Stripped bare, the war resides at the core of Dunst herself, between one trained to record and one who craves to act, one who absorbs and sublimates, and one in search of the single genuine act – the conflict between a human being trained for dehumanizing circumstances, and one whose humanity struggles to breathe amid the lies and lime-covered bodies.

It is true that the divide in Garland’s movie is not left versus right. Neither is it not moderates versus extremists. It is survival at the expense of empathy and work as shooting (whether with cameras or with guns, in as emotionally disconnected a fashion as possible) versus empathy – as a vital form of self-discovery. Amid accelerating violence-desensitization, the tragic flaw of Lee is her humanity, and why impart imperfection to a kid dutifully bent double over the artificial instruments of this modern war, namely the triumph of our machine selves over an all-too-human, needlessly-suffering past?

What do we give our children finally, something of civilization close to deep feeling in the name of trying to keep that spark of our humanity alive, or do we transmit hardness, including the tools to receive and attack a hard way of life, without the encumbrance of feeling?

That’s the civil war at the heart of Civil War.

It is abundantly psychological, not political.

But then, at the heart of it, the two are vitally inextricable.

For democracy, itself founded on the concept of demos or people, depends on the depth of our understanding.

That’s something. A start, perhaps.

Does anyone see it differently?

I’m curious.

Typing away in a coffee shop, I encountered a friend, who asked if I recommend the movie. I’m not sure I would recommend it to anyone. It’s too disturbing, too vivid a mirror, and heaped on the bonfire of our unsettling times, I’m not sure it accomplishes anything.


Yes, I suppose it is.

Trying to engage my cousin on the topic of Civil War, I sent him a text asking if he had seen the movie. He’s an Army veteran of Desert Storm and a retired firefighter, who responded to the Pentagon on 9/11. Now he helps first responder professionals cope with hurt. He hasn’t seen it and doesn’t intend to see it. “I tend to go easier on the action and limit the trauma porn in my life these days,” he wrote back, as he treats, apparently, another client in need. His text strikes me as a very decent response, very balanced, and reassuring, especially to the extent this tough man interacts with the next generation. To be fair, without Civil War by Alex Garland, I wouldn’t have asked.

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7 responses to “‘Civil War’ – An InsiderNJ Movie Review”

  1. As always, Max, I am in awe of your outstanding prose. I am intrigued by the film now. Like your friend, though, I am not sure if it is right for me at this particular moment. Great analysis!

  2. Really, a movie depicting a modern day American Civil War?
    Is that what we really need right now?
    I am already nauseated at the current violence in the states and across the globe. Both real and what is rolling off of the manufactured entertainment assembly line.
    The idea of self-inflicted military destruction towards each other on our own soil is sickening. It is saddening, depressing and overwhelming. As if we haven’t already spent enough time and money glorifying the horrors of war and mass violance.
    This is an incredible tone-deafness and ignorance to the catastrophic history of 1861 to 1865 and its aftermath. As our eyewitness and secondhand accounts fade, we forget. Thus giving birth to a new bravado and fetish for harming others. Justified through ideology.
    This film feeds on our most base collective impulses towards war and violence at a time when civil war is a real and credible concern.
    According to the leadership conference on Civil and Human Rights, “54 percent fear America is on the path to another civil war.”
    So rather than responding to this clarion call with civic action and humanity towards our fellow citizens, we automatically respond to the entertainment industry at the box office.
    The media establishment has doubled down for a profit-making narrative that only helps visualize what I don’t want to happen.
    It is easier to engage the reptilian brain. To inspire hope, provoke positive action and engage towards love takes enormous talent. But here we are…..

  3. I was disappointed by this film. I thought it was two underdeveloped stories in one film, and to make any sense of the political story a whole lot more back story was need. The was correspondent story, which is really the film with the war being the backdrop , was so simple to the point of being trite. Just a big wasted miss.

  4. This type of film sickens me as it can force someone currently on the edge to do something we would all regret. It’s too much negative hyperbole for the common people to engage with and digest. I appreciated your synopsis and while I have not seen the movie I agree with it based on the clips I’ve seen.

  5. Not having read a single review or seen one trailer, my woman and I left a completely satisfying happy hour at our local haunt to go see Civil War. She went for the popcorn and as an old soldier I went to see what the future might hold.
    The subliminal messages were easy to unravel from the constant Caucasian men kill anything and everything good or bad and shouldn’t be trusted down to the African American woman saves the world by killing the penultimate white man.
    The premise of mentoring and looking out for each other while the world around you goes to pieces was overflowing with cliches and I failed to enjoy the sacrificial act at the end because the mentee only learned one side of the lesson and left her hero lying dead on the floor without so much as a second look.
    Kill or be killed isn’t civil war in my opinion and True photojournalism is a dying art so putting the two together was genius and overall thought provoking, at least for the five minute ride back home.

  6. A real civil war in America would be very short. Latin Americans and Drug gangs would immediately invade Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California. White majority would rapidly become a minority. Russsia would consolidate half of Europe, then take Alaska. China would consolidate Asia and take Hawaii. Multinationals would move to Europe & the Middle East. Then the invasion would begin. Or nuclear war.

  7. I seem to be the outlier: tough fim, necessary film, stomach churning and thought provoking. It doesn’t help to shy away from what we might become – primal, driven, violent by any means to achieve “goals,” and rid ourselves of any “other” who may or may not present threat.
    this fim disturbed on every level, starting
    with the cavalier veneers and adrenaline

    highs required to be a wartime photo journalist. It covered the wantonness of murder and viscious armed engagements in war, without reason and limits but with tons of cruelty by inertia. The movie treats us to the lengths, depths, and horrible satisfaction with all this that demonstrates war’s abandonment of humanity.
    These were the points. One did not need to know why the war, which side stood for what. The messages were clear: we can be reduced quickly given these circumstances (history), this can be our future if we don’t stop our slide. We can become these people. This warring, fractured country. Beware. Thay’s the movie.

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