CIVIL WAR: Pandering to the Paranoid

by Tim Estiloz

Sometimes after watching a film, I need a little time to think before sitting down to write about it. Time to gather my thoughts and digest what I’ve just seen; before writing some articulate, perhaps clever, prose to guide you as a moviegoer.

However, this time I need no such pensive interlude to describe my visceral opinion and loathsome feelings for this film. This time, I can cut right to the chase.

The new film CIVIL WAR is a horribly cynical, violent and carelessly incendiary waste of 109 minutes masquerading as a thinly veiled cautionary tale for the politically paranoid. It left me shaken and unnerved not only by its often extreme bloody violence and horrific imagery; but also, by its manipulative and shameless pandering to the darkest base fears held by the farthest extremes of our nation’s current divided discourse. 

This film is an irresponsible, albeit technically well crafted, fetid pile of steaming celluloid dog manure designed solely to inflame deeper division.

The film opens on the eve of a climatic military assault on Washington, DC. The entire United States has been in the grip of a bloody modern-day civil war between the so-called “WF” or Western Front armed alliance of California and Texas ( yes, you read that right. ) fighting against a U.S. President turned dictator in his third term in office, holed up in a fortified and militarily armed White House. 
Subtlety is definitely not this film’s strongest asset among very few.

Amid this conflict, the focus falls upon two seasoned journalists, Lee ( Kirsten Dunst ) a veteran war photojournalist and Joel ( Wagner Moura ) her Reuters news colleague. The duo have been traveling the country covering the armed conflict while the President is seen on television spouting platitudes about America’s greatness amid genuine news video of civil unrest in the streets.

Lee and Joel arrive in New York City to cover the unrest taking place there when they encounter a young, very inexperienced, aspiring photojournalist named Jessie (Cailee Speany) who ventures too close to the violence and is saved by Lee from a suicide bomber carrying an American flag. Jessie follows Lee to her hotel and confides to her that she is one of Lee’s biggest fans and aspires to follow in her professional footsteps. As they separate, Lee encourages Jessie to get the proper protective gear ( helmet, Kevlar vest ) before continuing her journalistic quest.

Next morning, Lee discovers Jessie has convinced Joel to let her accompany them on a dangerous journey to snag an interview with the embattled President in D.C. before the White House falls to the encroaching WF forces. Complicating their perilous journey even further; Lee and Joel have also reluctantly agreed to let an aging, yet respected, veteran fellow journalist Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) accompany them along their journey.

Along the way Joel and, after some initial reticence, Lee begin to mentor and encourage their young companion in the ways of war reporting. For a time, Joel and Lee act as road show journalism Mr. Miyagis to Jessie’s novice Daniel-San reporter.  


However, things start to get dark and dangerous very fast as the quartet take a side trip to cover a nearby urban firefight between WF forces and some government snipers. The battle is vicious with high caliber ammunition being fired from both sides fracturing the concrete structures protecting the soldiers and crouching journalists into blistering fragments. Jessie cautiously takes her first photos amid the battle; first of a WF soldier gunned down trying to get cover. Later, she witnesses the WF soldiers brutally shoot a wounded opposing soldier and then, sees them summarily line up three more captured, bound and hooded soldiers before they too are riddled to pieces with automatic machine gun fire.

This is a brutal film depicting Americans committing war crimes against other Americans in America.

Later, the group stops at a rural roadside gas station manned by three menacing looking, armed “good ol’ boys”. While Joel is negotiating getting some gas, Jessie wanders behind the station with one of the men in tow, soon joined by Lee. There they witness two other men hanging off the ground in a shed by their wrists, both beaten, lacerated and bloodied to near unrecognizable pulps, both just barely alive and unable to speak. No real explanation is given as to why they’ve been violated so horrifically; other than one of the gas station boys saying one of the beaten pair used to go to school with him. 

It doesn’t end well for them.

But wait, there’s more. After evading a hidden sniper and running over a bloodied dead soldier in the road; they encounter two more fellow journalists traveling in their own vehicle along the remote barren backroads of ( cliche ahead ) West Virginia. All that’s missing in the soundtrack is the theme from Deliverance.

Suffice to say, the six journalists find themselves captured by a couple more machine gun toting, camouflage wearing “good ol’ boys” emptying out a dump truck full of bloodied dead bodies by a river. One of the armed goons, stereotypically played by Jesse Plemons, begins playing a tense, dangerous game with his terrified captives, asking each “what kind of American are you?… where are you from?”. The captives answer soon means the difference between their life or death.

The two new journalists just happen to be Asian. Guess who among the six don’t survive ?

Writer / Director Alex Garland decides in this disgusting scene to evoke imagery fictionally taking place in America that’s not been seen since the real life genocide known as the Holocaust. The camera pulls out to a wide shot to reveal a shocking tableau; when one of the surviving group falls screaming into a long, deeply dug trench filled with dozens upon dozens of lye-covered, decaying murdered bodies, mostly minorities of color. 

In this film, conjuring fictional images horribly and graphically reminiscent of Auschwitz and Dachau in Midwest rural America apparently makes for good entertainment while you munch on your buttered popcorn and Milk Duds.

Ultimately, Lee, Joel and Jessie arrive in Washington, D.C. amid a fierce battle in the streets as WF forces fight towards capturing the White House bent on killing, not capturing, but killing the President. Tanks and fighter jets are obliterating the city and its nearby historic monuments. The three journalists join the soldiers as they blast their weapons through the halls of the White House gunning down every single Secret Service agent and White House staffer encountered inside.

The fate of the journalists by the end of the film can be seen a mile away. The cliched moment has been played out a thousand times before; often in much better made films.

The most shocking and vulgar imagery is what takes place at the very end of this one. CIVIL WAR culminates in an obscene cinematic manifestation of the most deeply twisted wet dream imagined by only the most extreme and darkest factions of our current political divide. 

The WF soldiers breach the Oval Office and drag the cowering President to the floor as he begs for his life. Unfazed by his pleas,  the soldiers fire multiple bullets into his chest at close range, instantly killing him. As the closing credits roll, music plays over a still frame photo of the dead President laying sprawled on the floor as the soldiers who killed him gather round his body, grinning for the camera. Fade to black.

Technically, and only technically, CIVIL WAR is a well made film. Director Garland who showed such skill with his deservedly lauded sci-fi film EX MACHINA knows how to build tension during the urban chaos and battle scenes. The staging, special effects and superb editing places you in the midst of the carnage with nerve jarring effect. Equally chilling is the way Garland stages the quiet malevolence that hangs in the air before and during when the journalists are captured in the rural countryside.

However, the technical execution of this film is far overshadowed by the travesty of Garland’s heavy-handed screenplay. He and some members of his cast try to present this film as some altruistic cautionary tale if recent or current real life events were extrapolated to some nightmarish future apocalypse. Instead, CIVIL WAR is simply a pitifully irresponsible manifestation of the most extreme and paranoid rhetoric permeating the cesspools of both politics and cable news.

The film has absolutely no context to begin with. Garland dumps us into a vicious U.S. civil war without ever stating what the war is about. We never know what issues sparked the conflict. It’s not even completely clear cut who are the “good guys” and who are the “bad guys”. 

All Garland’s screenplay serves up are easily identifiable stereotypes of grimy, inbred rural rednecks, a blustery gasbag of a politician and frightening violence with no stated cause. Its only purpose is to cynically play upon the fears and prejudices of a fractured moviegoing populace that’s either genuinely frightened of a real or imagined Boogeyman… or to confirm their own jaded preconceptions of the unknown.    

To utilize scenes of mass graves in trenches evocative of the Holocaust so cavalierly is not imaginative or thoughtful cinema. Its base pandering meant to shock that disrespects the memory of those real victims of genocide desecrated in such a manner decades ago.

Somewhere lost in this crap show screenplay are the seeds of a far more interesting story about the novice photojournalist Jessica and her relationship and professional mentoring by the seasoned veteran Lee. A fuller exploration of that connection might have made a fascinating film to watch. However, even the promising superficial presentation of those characters developing relationship is completely scuttled by yet another haphazard, cliched ridden resolution in Garland’s verve to get to the closing gratuitous money shot of a dead President. 

Given the polarizing and combustable real life climate of today, such supposedly “fictional” imagery seems vulgarly irresponsible.  

Whatever pretentious pretext that this film is a sincerely meant “cautionary tale” is exposed as patently false with that unsettling and violent denouement. CIVIL WAR is a divisive embarrassment.

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