‘Civil War’ misfires

Kirsten Dunst in Civil War

“The idea of breaking up the country seems so grave, so full of disillusionment, so great a loss to the founding idea of America, that most of us regard it as unthinkable. Most, not all.” – Clay S. Jenkinson

The critical response to Civil War has been so contentious that some may label it a “love it or hate it” movie. I, for one, profoundly disagree with that assessment; it can be found mediocre as well.

To me, Civil War most calls to mind The Purge. Both pictures concoct an intriguing premise that invites curiosity to its world building yet brushes it all aside for a much less ambitious story that seems to only have this element in place as an excuse as to why nobody can call for help.

A quartet of photojournalists – two middle-aged (Kirsten Dunst and Wagner Moura), one elderly (Stephen McKinley Henderson), and one young (Cailee Spaeny) – are on a journey to Washington D.C. so they can interview the president (Nick Offerman) before it becomes too late. You see, unlike the conflict of the 1860s, the Union this time does not have the upper hand and is suspected to fall soon. Along the way, they’ll encounter sights of warfare and bloodshed. Some they’ll be eager to exploit for a picture, some they won’t.

As I’m sure every single person who’s reported on this movie has already pointed out, no information is given as to the cause of the war nor the ideological viewpoints of the sides. Yes, there can be times when ambiguity on this or that can work in the film’s favor, but needless to say, this is not one of those times. The whole reason to be interested in a film about a hypothetical second American Civil War is to see how such a thing would be possible. Why it started, what the armies are and what they believe, etc. 

The most that we get is a mention that the president is in his third term, but no context is given. What happened to the 22nd Amendment which currently prohibits this? Did he unilaterally seize total power (again, how? Because if that were so easy to do, surely at least one president in the past would have done so already) and that’s why states seceded? Was the war already in progress and, like FDR before him, he thought it best not to change leadership? These things would be very helpful to know.

When some aspects are thought out, they aren’t on screen. For example, the flag for the Western Forces is just the regular American flag but with two big stars on the blue corner. Since the stars represent the states, is the implication that this faction is only comprised of Texas and California? Really? No other states? A map on the Wikipedia page shows that to indeed be the case, but this graphic is absent from the film proper. 

And were they to succeed, what would happen then? As we in reality know them, these two states have diametrically different political cultures. How do they hope to function? Or is this only a temporary alliance and each will go their separate ways once the common goal is achieved? These things would be very helpful to know.

All of this said, however, the basic plot works well enough, alternating escalating tensions with quieter moments of reflection. The characters are well-portrayed and go through the proper growth (albeit a tad predictably). Strong shot composition is evident, with a keen eye towards juxtaposing the idyllic with the grim.

The strongest point in the film comes with the arrival of Jesse Plemons, who I really wish the promotional materials kept secret (he is uncredited in the role, a common trait of surprise appearances). While, just like the rest of the movie, we don’t learn much about him or his motivations, he makes an indelible impression as a deranged militiaman that makes his Black Mirror villain look like a saint. He captures the audience’s attention with an iron grip and doesn’t let go until he exits the frame. 

But while Civil War will sell you on the acting prowess of Plemons, it won’t sell you on its central gimmick. Why is this setup even necessary? Was it really not possible to tell a story about combat photogs without some nonsense scenario? Questions like these are what need answering before trying to tackle bigger ideas. What needs answering even before that is if there’s a point to it.

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