• Mon. May 20th, 2024

Movie Curiosities

The online diary of an aspiring movie nerd

There will never be a Civil War II here in the USA. It’s not happening. I don’t care what loophole or conspiracy theory you heard or who you heard it from. The first Civil War settled this, and it’s been roundly confirmed by courts and lawyers and judges across the land: There is no legal or constitutional means for a state to leave the Union.

Upon hearing this, you may be thinking that it wouldn’t be the first time in recent memory that our politicians and citizens have openly flouted tradition and decorum and constitutional law. What if some state government or political party decided to openly commit treason and leave the Union anyway? Okay. What happens next?

What happens to the U.S. military bases stationed in different states and all around the world? Who gets all the tanks and the jets and the goddamn nukes? What happens to the federally owned land and protected landmarks? What do you think the Native American tribes and foreign embassies would have to say about it?

Even if Disney wanted to, you think they could simply pack up and leave after all the billions of dollars they’ve pumped into Florida? How do you think this would go down at the Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta? What do you think Ford and GM — and all their loyal customers — would say if they couldn’t sell their cars in the South anymore? You want to tell all the sports fans out there — and the billionaire team owners and the athletes and the journalists and the casinos and everyone else who makes a yearly fortune on sports — that the NFL, the NBA, and every other professional sports league is getting kicked out of half the country? And what about all the overseas corporations with multibillion-dollar contracts and trade routes coming through the States, how would they be affected? You think any state government wants to secede badly enough that they’d give up all the tax dollars and campaign contributions from these huge conglomerates?

The U.S. splitting in half would be an economic clusterfuck on a geopolitical scale big enough to make Brexit look like the Family Video bankruptcy. Say what you will about Brexit, at least the E.U. had an outlined process for countries who want to leave!

But what if we come at this another way?

Consider events like 9/11, Pearl Harbor, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. There’s a reason why those events are such massive national calamities, and why they all happened so far apart: Successful foreign attacks on American soil are exceedingly rare. What’s more, they’re difficult to the point of near-impossible.

We are in no conceivable danger of being invaded by Canada or Mexico anytime soon. Cuba and the Pacific Islands are no kind of military threat to us. Most of the Caribbean nations and islands are our territories. Hostile superpowers like China or Russia have little need for military warfare against us when economic leverage would be just as effective and far less bloody. More militant hostile nations like Iran and North Korea are too far removed from us, and our allies are much more closely-located. Not to downplay the tragedy that can be dealt by one foreign terrorist with a bomb, but it’s nothing on the scale of full-blown warfare.

The point being that we in the USA — most especially those on the continental mainland — have never had to worry about our cities and neighborhoods turning into war zones. This isn’t like the Middle East, or West Africa, or Eastern Europe, or even the British/Irish border. We don’t have to worry about lines getting redrawn, rules or politicians changing on a whim, alliances shifting, or whether we’ll get killed by an air raid in the night. (Granted, we all live in constant fear of getting caught in a mass shooting, but that’s different.)

Except for those select few Americans who volunteer to join the armed services and fight overseas (and with a few other minor exceptions I’ll get to later), none of us will ever have to directly experience the horrors of war. This leads to a kind of disconnect when we see the ongoing carnage out of Gaza or Ukraine. Yes, it’s cruel and heartbreaking and we can feel awful about it, but I don’t know if the typical American psyche is capable of fully grasping that the crater in that photo was somebody’s house the day before. We’ve never had to consider what it’s like to wander through the hellscape that used to be your hometown, scrapping and fighting with your own countrymen because they’re all just as injured and starving and traumatized and unhoused as you are.

For me, this is where Civil War is at its most effective. By which I mean the latest and supposedly last movie to be written and directed by Alex Garland. (He made the big mistake of announcing his directing hiatus on April 1st, so pardon me if I’m slow to believe the news.) But even then, this movie has some serious problems.

We lay our scene in the near future, in which the unnamed POTUS (briefly and gamely played by Nick Offerman) is serving his third term in office. It’s not exactly clear if the President abused and expanded his power before or after the USA divided into factions, but the point stands that the USA is a war-torn hellscape and the President is a full-blown dictator. Leaving aside vague talk of the “Florida Alliance” and the “Portland Maoists” (I take offense at that.), the war has primarily boiled down to two factions. What’s left of the USA federal government is still in Washington D.C., and the New England area is more or less under their control. On the opposing end are the Western Forces, led by the alliance of California and Texas.

Yes, arguably the most powerful blue state joining forces with the most notorious red state. Even by Garland’s own weak-sauce rationale that isn’t even hinted at in the actual film, that’s some pretty transparent both-sidesing. And considering how much of the film’s premise plays into fears stoked by modern rhetoric that is in turn blatantly partisan, that’s chickenshit. Are we making a political statement here or not, Alex?

Anyway, we open right when the war is rumored to be winding down, with the Western Front making steady progress all through the lower Midwest. The frontlines are currently around Charlottesville, but the WF is allegedly set to take the White House in a few short days on — wait for it — the Fourth of July.

Enter Lee Smith and her partner Joel (respectively played by Kirsten Dunst and Wagner Moura) a couple of highly reputed war photojournalists working for Reuters. Fresh from covering a few water riots in NYC, they set out on a foolhardy road trip to D.C. with the intent of getting an interview with the President before the WF comes to kill him. Never mind that the President has never given an interview at any time in the war, and journalists in the USA capitol are considered good as enemy combatants.

Tagging along with Lee and Joel is Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), a treasured mentor to Lee and still working in his old age as a war reporter for the New York Times. We also get Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), a budding journalist who came up idolizing Lee, who charms her way into coming along for the ride. Thus we get our road trip through the war-torn American Northeast from NYC to D.C. just in time for the big climactic shootout on July 4th.

First of all, I know I have a longstanding rule about idiots who go running into trouble against all logic or reason. Given that these are war photographers and running headlong into mortal peril is a crucial part of their job, I’ll waive the point for that much. But when a character engages in some stupid vehicular stunt for no reason whatsoever, in a time or place that has nothing to do with any kind of war or journalism, for no other reason than to set up the next scene, that deserves proper recognition as a plotbreaker.

Secondly, it bears repeating that the politics in this movie make no sense. The world-building makes no sense. This movie has absolutely nothing coherent to say about the current political landscape of America or the hyper-polarized times we live in.

My go-to example is easily Jesse Plemons (Mr. Kristen Dunst himself), who obligingly appears as an unnamed nationalist militia nutjob. This character gets at least five unbroken minutes to threaten our main characters with an assault rifle, and literally the only reason it works is because this is Jesse Plemons and playing homicidal white trash assholes is a specialty of his. (Hell, just look at his breakout performance in “Breaking Bad”.)

The problem with this character is that he asks all these open-ended questions about where our characters are from and what kind of American they are. I get the question about what it really means to be American. I get the question of how we’re supposed to keep on living when any one of us could get shot for our petty differences and political disagreements. The problem is that this one scene and all the questions within it would need a full two-hour movie to properly unpack. (Seriously, tell me that doesn’t sound more like an A24 movie.) And we don’t have the time for that. So before we can come anywhere near any kind of answer, one of the characters all but literally says “Enough of this shit!” and dives in from out of nowhere to blow up the whole damn scene.

Really, the central conceit of “What if America turned on itself?” was the least interesting part of the movie. I was far more taken with the central presentation of “What if America became a war zone?”

What we’ve more or less got here is 100 solid minutes of modern-day war imagery laid on top of the modern-day USA. “What if Gaza or Mariupol was happening in Pittsburgh?” What if our streets had been turned into sniper traps and our freeways were clogged with abandoned cars? What if our outdoor stadiums had been commandeered into humanitarian shelters and every blank surface had either been bombed out or covered in graffiti? What if your friends and neighbors were at risk of getting killed by a suicide bomber, getting killed by a riot cop, dying for lack of potable water, or even all three at the same time?!

The film is at its best when it tries to portray the horrors of war in a way that hits closer to home like it wouldn’t if we were watching another country on fire. That said, there are two unavoidable problems with this: January 6th, 2021 and Summer 2020. In fact, I’m quite sure the film’s prologue repurposes footage taken directly from the attempted insurrection and the BLM riots. We’ve already seen what it looks like when our streets are made into battlefields. As a Portlander, many good personal friends of mine were arrested or pepper-sprayed or worse during the riots of that summer. I get that Garland is trying to show us the worst possible outcome if we stay on this path, but it’s a tough sell when the real thing is still so fresh in our minds.

And anyway, if Garland won’t make any kind of statement about how we get from here to there or what we can do to stop that worst-case scenario from happening, then this movie is effectively useless as a political statement. He’s like the inverse of Adam McKay, who keeps insisting that our impending doom is both unavoidable and totally deserved because we’re all self-destructive idiots. Sure, his films are just as useless, but at least you know where he stands. It’s an awful, wrong-headed, misanthropic, nihilistic statement, but at least it’s a statement!

There’s another point to be made with regards to the idyllic small town that’s carrying on like “business as usual”, deliberately pretending that there is no war in Ba Sing Se. As a critique of those who don’t want to get involved in politics or think elections don’t affect them or vice versa, it makes sense. As an indictment of those who pretend like genocides aren’t happening and war crimes aren’t being committed in their name, it makes sense. But then the main characters spin this into a moment for comic relief and an opportunity to show their more human side without the constant stress of gunfire.

I know I’ve said for years that comic relief is a vital part of any story, and it was damn well necessary in this movie. I’ll happily grant that this moment does a fine and necessary job of developing the characters. But all of this is only made possible because of those who pretend the war isn’t happening, which cheapens the greater thematic point.

Speaking of, let’s get to the main cast. Yes, Stephen McKinley Henderson is a grandmaster character actor who can play the aging mentor with heart and humor. Yes, Cailee Spaeny is a charismatic up-and-comer who sells Jessie as a legitimately talented young photographer who’s got too much ambition and too little trauma for her own good. Yes, Kristen Dunst plays a war-hardened journalist like the champion we all know she is, and Wagner Moura shows off more than enough screen presence to hold his own against all these heavy-hitters put together.

That said, it doesn’t change the fact that all of these characters revolve around a boilerplate development arc between Lee and Jessie. Lee is taking out her own trauma on Jessie, Jessie is learning about the horrors of war firsthand through her experiences with Lee, and you already know beat-for-beat how this is all going to play out because the characters all but tell us themselves in the dialogue. I’ll grant that it’s well-acted. I’ll even grant that seeing the war through the snapshots of a photographer brings a novel touch to the presentation. I’ll readily admit that having a wet-behind-the-ears protagonist helps to convey the “war is hell” theme. That still doesn’t change the fact that the development arc itself is threadbare.

The more I think about Civil War, the less I like it. It’s tough to get around the fact that A24 is a company known for making bold cinematic statements, Alex Garland is known as a bold cinematic auteur, and this whole movie was marketed as a bold political statement, but the finished movie pulls all its punches in every way that matters most. A film with no coherent ideology, nothing pertinent to say about modern American politics, and nothing more relevant or intelligent than “war is hell”.

It’s frustrating how the movie throws so much at the screen, brings up all these intriguing topics, and puts them all together in a package so beautifully presented that you don’t even realize until hours later that all those starting points never really went anywhere. Because the filmmakers were too afraid of their own incendiary premise to commit to it. What’s worse, the development arcs and dialogues are all overly simplistic and aggressively blunt in a way characteristic of filmmakers trying to appear smarter and deeper than they really are.

Alex, buddy, you’re better than this. We all know you’re better than this. Take some time away from directing if that’s what it takes, but your next script damn well has to be the quality we’ve all come to expect from you.

By Curiosity Inc.

I hold a B.S. in Bioinformatics, the only one from Pacific University's Class of '09. I was the stage-hand-in-chief of my high school drama department and I'm a bass drummer for the Last Regiment of Syncopated Drummers. I dabble in video games and I'm still pretty good at DDR. My primary hobby is going online for upcoming movie news. I am a movie buff, a movie nerd, whatever you want to call it. Comic books are another hobby, but I'm not talking about Superman or Spider-Man or those books that number in the triple-digits. I'm talking about Watchmen, Preacher, Sandman, etc. Self-contained, dramatic, intellectual stories that couldn't be accomplished in any other medium. I'm a proud son of Oregon, born and raised here. I've been just about everywhere in North and Central America and I love it right here.

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