Civil War is an empty B-movie masquerading as something of substance | Charles Bramesco

Estimated read time 7 min read

The music video for MIA’s Born Free imagines a ginger genocide, with humvees of jackbooted, gas-masked stormtroopers raiding a high-rise housing complex to round up redheads. Even before the condemned are bussed out to the desert and used for target practice, the camerawork luxuriates in extreme content – needless collateral brutalization, a slow-mo closeup of a man smoking from a glass stem, a harsh coitus interruptus for a nude couple. All the while, a driving synth loop and kinetic cinematography keep things moving at a brisk, exciting clip befitting the high-energy banger at hand; one of the goons mugs through the fourth wall and lip-syncs a “whoo!” in time with the track.

The video has far more use for the edgy textures of state-sponsored violence than its messy realities, the intellectual engagement topping out at “ethnic cleansing is bad, and who knows, it could happen to you!” At nine minutes, this doesn’t pose such a pressing problem for the director Romain Gavras as it did on his 2022 feature Athena, wherein spectacular formal pyrotechnics gave way to the conclusion that riot police and proletarian protesters have something to learn about getting along. These atrocities may be ghastly, but that’s hardly the point. This stuff makes for cracking footage, every headshot worthy of a post on One Perfect Shot.

The core sample in Born Free comes from 70s electro-punk pioneers Suicide, whose music opens and closes the road trip from hell undertaken by a quartet of journalists in the new action film Civil War. The on-the-nose strains of Rocket USA creep in as their car cuts a swath down a highway clogged with abandoned vehicles, a sight announced when the grizzled lifer tells their party’s drowsy newbie, “You don’t want to miss this.” Once covered by Bruce Springsteen, perhaps the most American man alive, Dream Baby Dream appends a smirky punchline to an act of mercilessness not so far from plausibility for a stunning 40% of US citizens. As the star-spangled empire crumbles, we get to jam out to avant-psych outfit Silver Apples and a funky-fresh broadside against the crack epidemic from De La Soul in between white-knuckle set pieces. Whatever the director Alex Garland’s ambitions, and he’s now spoken about them at length, his primary concern seems to be that nobody gets bored during his meditation on the senseless horror of war.

Many of Garland’s reviewers and interviewers have taken him to task for a perceived political cowardice in his vague mapping of a United States ruptured by internal conflict. We don’t get a Star Wars-style preamble crawl of neatly packaged context, but we learn that the president (Nick Offerman, whose red-meat-fed, heartland-coded persona counts as a clue) has forcibly taken a third term, disbanded the FBI, and executed members of the press in public view. If that’s not enough to go off of, his only supporter with dialogue (Jesse Plemons) happens to be a white nationalist. (Also, it helps that in the review from the far-right outlet Breitbart, they characterize the president as a hero.)

Garland’s avoidance of specifics has less to do with shying away from partisanship than glossing over the difficult questions raised by a complex premise. Writers of speculative fiction live for the nitty-gritty, hammering out logistical details to bring what-ifs within our suspension of disbelief; we never find out whether Garland can back up his big-swing hypothetical, as he lacks the inclination to even try.

As he has clarified again and again to the point of insistence, his interests lie closer to journalistic matters in the abstract. “The kind of journalism we need most – reporting, which used to be the dominant form of journalism – had a deliberate removal of a certain kind of bias,” he told Polygon. “If you have a news organization which has a strong bias, it is only likely to be trusted by the choir to which it’s preaching, and it will be distrusted by the others. So that was something journalists used to actively, deliberately, consciously try to avoid. … And then the film attempts to function like those journalists.” Such a statement betrays a stunning misunderstanding of the profession’s functioning and purpose, which have always been shaped by conscious decisions of framing. Considering the material at hand, it’s hard to accept that even Garland buys his own line. Is perfect impartiality the intended takeaway when Kirsten Dunst’s battle-hardened shutterbug instructs a gunman to pose in front of his bloodied captives like they’re line-caught tuna?

Some critics have posited that however unwittingly, Garland’s methods instead pose a critique of the fourth estate’s tendency to sensationalize by doing the same; this is, at most, stumbling backwards into half an idea the film would have done well to pursue. But his total indifference to the logistics of the job – we see no editors, no note-taking, nothing less cinematic than the narrowing of eyes and clicking of a button – suggests something closer to an Occam’s razor explanation that he selected this project because it would be a good time. Directors enjoy commanding squadrons of extras in choreographed chaos, and while Garland’s clearest reference points (chief among them Saving Private Ryan’s audio-muted D-Day invasion and the society-gone-mad imagery from Apocalypse Now, the latter of which Garland perplexingly called a “dark, seductive romance” during a Q&A after New York’s press screening) are freighted with the terrible weight of history, his imaginary premise allows him to borrow the gravitas and the pulse-pounding parts of war without their attendant obligations. All the tragedy has the weightlessness of a Call of Duty video game, and Garland’s playing on easy mode.

This past weekend, the highest-budgeted production from upstart mini-major studio A24 pulled off its highest-earning opening ever, the ultimate affirmation of its director’s blockbuster instincts. Indeed, it’s hard not to think of the States-under-siege classic Independence Day when a firefight explodes the Lincoln Memorial, but Roland Emmerich – and this is the true dystopian scenario, in which we must hand it to Roland Emmerich – understood that obliterating the White House was meant to be an over-the-top popcorn thrill. With its bands of marauders, thinly drawn archetypal characters, and prevailing thirst for blood, Civil War is more like a shameless B-movie in solemn arthouse drag, in denial of a distasteful streak that could have blossomed into far more cutting commentary if properly nurtured.

Case in point: during the immersive combat set pieces touted by the ad campaign as “the stuff that IMAX was made for”, my mind drifted back to an episode of Succession wherein the morally deficient Roman brainstorms the final frontier of entertainment. “How about terror?” he spitballs. “Like, actual terror, like a VR experience, but I’m actually going to fucking die. Like war. We put you in one of those landing crafts, and you’re about to hit the beach.” To which his partner for the exercise replies, “Sure. No one’s ever gone bust overestimating the American public’s interest in violence.” In the moment, we’re meant to understand this as a crass grab for the easiest provocation available, servicing the audience’s basest desires. The concept is revolting, but at least it’s honest.


You May Also Like

More From Author