Saturday, April 20, 2024

Point and Shoot: CIVIL WAR

A tense provocation, writer-director Alex Garland’s Civil War has sequences of frightening violence wherein the logic of action movies is turned inside out to make us root for the shooting to stop. Our lead characters are photojournalists courageously and recklessly charging after the action. The bullets fly and we flinch with them as the action charges ahead. We see bloodshed as intimate, personal—bodies hanging in an abandoned car wash, piled in mass graves behind farm houses, pulled apart by machine guns. The movie imagines a near-future America devolved into sectarian warfare, rebel troops amassing outside Washington to take on a fascistic president who has, in his third term, disbanded the FBI and shoots protestors. This isn’t the queasy-making romance of a lost cause, or a wishful thinking, that’s been burbling up with Civil War nostalgia for 150 years. If the United States were actually to fall into an all-out second Civil War it would look like this—balkanized, radicalized, individuated, dangerous and unpredictable. It’d be three backwoods guys with AR-15s guarding their local gas station. It’d be a random militia holed up trying to overpower and execute soldiers. It’d be insurgents storming the capitol.

Garland doesn’t worry overmuch about how we get there. The movie starts years into the conflict as we get the sense the war is drawing close to a climactic point of desperation. Dialogue has some free-floating allusions to past massacres, controversies, and realignments. We get the gist. The screenplay never announces the policy positions of its combatants, although a reasonably intelligent viewer could pin down the overarching particulars of the state of play. Instead, it stirs up its political intensity with immediacy of intent. It communicates clearly and directly, and with great force, ideas about the hell war puts all people through, and of the complicated natures of the specific people who make their mission the witnessing of it. This is a bleak vision of how some people are just waiting for an excuse to revel in chaos, and the movie plays it off with a throughly muddled sense of rooting interests. Of course we want our main characters to survive; that’s movie logic. But by stripping out actual specific policy or parties, we see only the tension between chaos and order. Stopping for speeches or debates that lay out the stakes might serve to soften the walloping dread and loud gunfire of sectarian violence and its rippling collateral damage. It’s a portrait of society in free fall, a little nervous about how plausible it could be.

Garland has often been a filmmaker interested in the fragility of the human body. Look at the time-warping drugs of Dredd or zombified rage that can infect from merely a drop in 28 Days Later. Or see the blurry lines between man and nature in the haunting alien landscapes of Annihilation and between man and machine in Ex Machina. With Civil War, Garland takes that investment in how fragile people are and pushes further into how that fragility is inextricable form the systems and institutions we build. It finds that larger perspective in sticking small and personal amidst the national ramifications. It’s confined to a picture of photographers dutifully witnessing while getting a charge out of following along—and it makes them vulnerable, too. Some (Kirsten Dunst) are disillusioned about the value of their job; her slow bleeding-out of conviction is a marvelously controlled and subtle performance. Others (Wagner Moura) gets a sick thrill out of the danger. Still others (Stephen McKinley Henderson) are tired veterans of the business, while a young newbie (Cailee Spaeny) gets a shock to her system as she enters the fray. All of them are shaken and stretched, with their fragility drawn out to the movie’s sick, cold conclusion that’s as inevitable as its central dialectic: guns and cameras are both point and shoot. The power of a still image is juxtaposed with the moving image—weaponizing a grainy freeze frame silence in the flow of clinical digital filmmaking to feel the etching of history and the foreshortening of context in each stuck frame—as it creates a tension between its creation and the chaos that breeds it. We’re left with the empty pit-of-the-stomach worry, and the wonder at what’s more powerful than fragile people rushing into history with a gun and a camera shooting in tandem—revolution written with or driven by a photo op.

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