Raising no questions

Mike Belbin reviews Alex Garland (writer and director) Civil war general release

In 1969 cinematographer Haskel Wexler1 brought out a fiction-cum-documentary film, Medium cool.

This followed a media photographer negotiating a path through the conflicts and some of the US political groups of the 1960s, including shots taken outside the Democratic Party national convention in Chicago. It was there that Wexler found himself filming an actual police confrontation with young demonstrators opposing the war in Vietnam. His main theme, however, was the question of news photography and whether this profession distanced its practitioners from their subjects. Did journalists need to fully understand violent events in front of them? Or was clicking the shutter enough? A reviewer of the time called the movie a “cinematic Guernica … exploding into fragmented bits of hostility”.2

Civil war is rather different: it invites us into a United States of the possible near-future that is torn by internal armed conflict, fragmented into groups big and small, and at least one lone sniper. The film is not so much an analysis as the offering of an experience. The premise is: what if the shining cities and rolling countryside of the USA were subject to a war, as in Syria or Somalia?

One of the largest rebel armies is the Western Forces, born of an alliance between the pink and blue states of Texas and California (or maybe just their billionaires and merged militias). The WF are about to head for Washington DC to capture the president, claimed to be a three-term “dictator”, but in effect a bog-standard politician. A small crew of press reporters decide to set out from riotous Brooklyn to join them and try to get to ‘The Chief’, for perhaps his last speech. They are Lee Smith (Kirstin Dunst), a renowned war photographer, Joel (Wagner Moura), a Reuters journalist from Florida, and Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), a veteran writer on the New York Times.

They all perform the war journalist differently. Lee is not so much indifferent as shattered: she barely wants to look at fighting, let alone take pictures, while Joel is eager to get a scoop: an interview with the president. Sammy, the veteran, though humane, is no longer impressed by anyone’s claims or justifications. Managing to join them is Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), a young woman who idolises Lee and aspires to be a war photographer too. She changes the most during the story. At one point she does not even look over at a friend who has been shot, so intent is she on going forward to capture one more ‘great’ photo.

This civil war has several rival fighters. The Western Forces, with its tanks and helicopters, is the one that looks most like a regular army. Others we see are informal paramilitaries and lone individuals. The press team meet all these along their way to the Capitol, as well as ‘uninvolved’ people, in a quiet town and a refugee camp. In the best scene, an irregular in fatigues and pink sunglasses (Jesse Plemons) does not take kindly to you if you are not “from America”. The tension peaks as to how the reporters will survive his deadly xenophobia.

We are not prompted to identify with any side. The president in DC is treated with contempt, but no one leader in particular is suggested. He turns out to be just a feeble human being: he gets his speeches written, but his own words are what you might hear from anyone. There are many archetypes: the ‘soldier grunt’; the ‘capable woman who feeds you’; the ‘rednecks’. But most are isolated, “fragmented bits of hostility”. This time, though, they have big guns or they are hiding out. There is lots of action, with firepower and explosions of fire, but it is no superhero movie. Who can you cheer or gasp at in admiration? There is no reason to want anyone defeated. Nor do I think the anguish of this film will stop many in the US from “fermenting division”, like pursuing or defending Donald Trump.

Some critics have protested about the lack of political definition in the movie. In fact, it is more like an anti-war film than a ‘fascist vs anti-fascist’ movie; it is more in the tradition of All quiet on the western front or Slaughterhouse five. In Civil war the most prominent soldiers, the Western Forces, are not shown in a particularly bad light - they do not massacre civilians. Nor is there any allusion as to what could have possibly united Texas and California. The president may be a “dictator”, but you do not see much evidence of it.

These two opposing groups - the WF and the Washington defenders - might be interpreted by some as ‘warriors of liberty versus the king’, that simplest of historic American contrasts. Unlike in World War II or Vietnam war films though, spectators are not cognisant with a specific background. Some figures could be associated with Trump or Biden, but it is very much the spectators’ choice. What we are mainly shown is a disintegrated and tooled-up society in which an anxious middle class group follows and takes news photos without choosing any side. Racism rears its ugly head, but of the broadest kind: xenophobia from the crazy in pink glasses. Everybody is either shooting or surviving. Nobody has any idea of a different society - either the kind without non-whites or minus billionaires.

The film is a thriller with lots of surprises and a feeling for the killed, but without a ‘good guy/bad guy’ narrative. It does not go very deep - it does not even allude to the antagonisms created by the withdrawal of concessions made to the working class post-1945. This is one of the primary roots of antagonism now, where those who felt themselves entitled find that they have been degraded and marginalised, but regard the source of the problem as migrants and modernisers.

That would be something to confront or at least wonder at. But here we have the middle class riding alongside - either working at being ‘professional’ or numbed into impotence; no longer interested in ‘reasons why’. Civil war gives you exciting, yet apolitical, action. Unlike Medium cool, it raises no questions.

Mike Belbin

  1. Renowned for his 1967 film, In the heat of the night.↩︎

  2. www.nytimes.com/1969/08/28/archives/real-events-of-68-seen-in-medium-coolhaskell-wexler-wrote-and.html.↩︎