Cinema Without Borders: Alex Garland’s Civil War

In this weekly column, the writer explores the non-Indian films that are making the right noise across the globe. This week, we talk about Alex Garland’s Civil War
Cinema Without Borders: Alex Garland’s Civil War

Call it a reflection of our present-day fears or a metaphorical critique of contemporary times, the depiction of future in cinema invariably veers towards the dystopic. So is it, with Alex Garland’s imagination of the USA of the near future in Civil War, that was the opening film at the recent Red Lorry Film Festival in Mumbai.

It’s a free-for-all in the land of opportunity and liberty, with dictatorial governance at the helm, for the third term at that (yes, nudge and wink). The streets are ruled by militia, and a civil war is raging for the second time in the nation’s history. Did anyone say Donald Trump? Well, he looms large, but in absentia.

In the middle of the widespread rioting and brutality, and the apathy towards violence—the hanging bodies and mass graves—a team of four journalists embark on a journey across the nation to Washington DC to document the prevailing turmoil and madness and “get the only story left to tell”, i.e., the interview of the President before the group of secessionists capture the White House. It’s a journey that turns into a life-altering struggle for survival.

Garland provokes the audience into an introspective mode. Instead of consciously seeking out depth and profundity, he lends scale and spectacle to the immanent drama in the situation that his protagonists find themselves caught in and narrates their misadventures in the breathtaking pace of a tightly coiled, intense thriller. He builds an immersive world where the viewers become the participants in the fabulously mounted, edge-of-the-seat and gory war scenes.

The human angle is just as affecting. It's easy to identify with the seasoned approach of senior war photojournalist Lee (Kirsten Dunst), just as it is understandable to find aspiring photographer Jessie’s (Cailee Spaeny) enthusiasm infectious. Their mentor-mentee relationship is just as relatable—the protectiveness of Lee for Jessie running parallel to the respect and admiration that she has for her. Giving them company are two good men—the charming Joel (Wagner Moura) and the time-worn, matter-of-fact Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson).

Civil War taps into the mechanics and processes of a journalist’s job—how they embed themselves in the groups and battalions at war, to capture frames from either end of the battle lines. Oftentimes things are contingent on professional goals rather than humanitarian urgencies. And so, a good photo could matter more than saving a human life.

The four actors are in superb form, individually and as an ensemble. Dunst stands out, wearing wonderful, wilted wisdom on her face. Her years of experience are marked by an accompanying sense of fatigue.

However, there’s more to the film than journalism. It's often said that a film ultimately is the thoughts we bring to it or the sense we make of it. For me the most horrifying scene in the film is also its most crucial—the one featuring the unnamed trigger-happy American soldier (terrific and terrifying Jesse Plemons) asking “What kind of an American are you”. Red or blue? Democrat or Republican? The colour-coded, deeply entrenched political divisions in the civil war-torn US of the future become an allegory about the polarization affecting humankind worldwide and the seeds of self-destruction that lie embedded in it. It’s not the classic case of us against them; instead, everyone is running into the other, and the entire community appears to be on a collision course, ready to die by implosion. The civil unrest in the film doesn’t just question the myth of the American Dream. The microcosm of the civil war in the US becomes emblematic of the global civilizational crisis and looming hatred, bigotry, inequities, and uncertainties worldwide. There’s a cautionary message then in the madness: stop or perish; the choice is entirely ours.

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