Saturday, May 18, 2024

Review: “Civil War” is an Over-Hyped Aimless, Violent Movie that Looks Like a Video Game — What Are These People Fighting For?


The hype around Alex Garland’s “Civil War” is over the top. The publicity machine wants to make you believe this is a life changing movie about the divisions in our country and what could happen if they get out of control.

Believe me, I wanted to like it. I was prepared to be angered and moved.

But “Civil War” is hollow. It reads like a video game, something a teenager would be playing on his Nintendo hand set. The plot is confusing and the characters are undeveloped. It’s a lot of sound and fury, signifying anything.

Instead of being about Civil War, it’s really about three war photographers who go rogue and witness horrors. But these horrors seem almost cartoon-like if you’ve ever seen “The Killing Fields.”

The set up is that the country is under siege after a Trumpian president takes a third term. A lot of the country is wrecked and the people are mostly gone. It’s unclear where they’ve decamped to, unless they were blown up in a nuclear accident. There are indeed a lot of dead bodies around.

Kirsten Dunst is a seasoned photojournalist in New York (where the skyline looks untouched by the war). She and Wagner Moura want to drive to DC and try and interview the Trump like president who’s driven everyone to madness. For some reason, the great actor Stephen McKinley Henderson — playing a now portly, hobbled journalist — wants to go with them on this do-or-die adventure. They also pick up a fresh young acolyte in Caelee Spaeny, who looks like she’s 12 years old. They all go off on a road trip to DC via West Virginia.

It’s unclear how the civil war started. Nick Offerman plays the Trumpish president battling insurrectionists. A rebel group has formed from an implausible alliance between California and Texas against him. It’s hard to tell as the road trip proceeds who’s on what side. It’s only when the group runs into Jesse Plemons as a redneck member of something, that shocking violence occurs against two Asian American photographers. Plemons is chilling, and maybe the only indication of what’s to fear from the current administration.

The photographers drive their Press truck, sport badges and helmets as they witness the horrors of the war. Their whole message is that they don’t want to get involved. They have unusual access to the rebel forces (the ostensible good guys) as if they’re shrouded in a force field. The film is unconvincing in conveying their bravery. The only people they stand up for are themselves.

The big problem is that Garland never stops to explain why everyone is fighting. Race? Class? Abortion? The “insurrectionists” obviously want the Trumpish guy out, but to do so they’re blowing up everything, even the Lincoln Memorial and the White House. Are they the good guys? No one is in charge of them, either. It’s hard to know who to root for in a film that seems to be taking all sides at once. Why is everyone so angry? How can there be a civil war without any passion or emotion? Garland either knows and doesn’t want to say, or is leaving it up to interpretation.

I was disappointed by Kirsten Dunst’s character, who starts out like a hard nosed vet and then has some kind of mysterious breakdown. She kind of disappears three quarters of the way in. At least she’s using a digital camera. Spaeny is using her father’s camera and it takes film, which has she has to develop! Where is she getting all this film during a revolution. The 7-11s are all closed.

There is one funny scene, when the Scooby Doo gang rolls into some forgotten West Virginia town. It’s like they’ve wandered into a David Lynch film. A hipster sales girl is running a clothing shop as if nothing is going on in the world. It makes no sense plot-wise or tonally, but it’s a relief in this mess of a movie.

Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

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