Picture credit: George Pimentel/Getty Images for Paramount Pictures
On Cinema

War destroys everything

Alex Garland’s Civil War is filled with terror and horror


One of the jokes in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop is that when it comes to the civil war in the East African state of Ishmaelia, the Daily Beast newspaper wants victories for the Patriots and defeats for the Rebels. This is more even-handed than it sounds, because both sides say they’re the Patriots.

Alex Garland’s Civil War deploys a similar technique. It’s set in an America where the trivialities of a culture war have been replaced by the horrible seriousness of the shooting kind. A hectoring president given to rambling speeches is holed up in the White House having seized an unconstitutional third term, and armies from California and Texas are fighting to remove him. Although Nick Offerman’s character is called simply “President”, we know who he’s supposed to be, and Garland is clear that he doesn’t see him as Lincoln reborn. But in most of the scrappy battles we see, it’s unclear which side is which. Both would claim to be patriots. Both commit war crimes. 

It would be easy to assume this film was a smug Hollywood warning about the wickedness of one side in this year’s election, but it’s not about the rights and wrongs of today’s Republicans and Democrats. Its conceit is to collect the horrors we’re used to hearing about from today’s Ishmaelias, and place them much closer to home.  

As it opens, Offerman is announcing a victory. But the war correspondents drinking the bar dry in New York know different, and a pair of the toughest of them set out for Washington, hoping to scoop the world with an interview before his fall.

On a farm, they find a mass grave full of civilian corpses

Garland, the British writer behind 28 Days Later, makes good use of his experiences creating a post-apocalyptic world in that film to give us a road trip through a small-town America where everything is familiar, but slightly wrong. Here is a department store, with a military helicopter crashed outside. As the car drives under a bridge with familiar sports graffiti, we suddenly realise there are corpses dangling from it. On a farm, they find a mass grave full of civilian corpses.

In the car is Lee, a photographer who was covered the world’s trouble spots, perfectly played by Kirsten Dunst. Most familiar as Mary Jane in Spider-Man, it’s marvellous to see her in a leading role that has real meat. She’s traumatised by seeing the horror she’s documented abroad all around her at home. But like her writing colleague Joel, she’s addicted to the action. While he medicates with drugs and a bottle, she worries about the rookie snapper Jessie who’s tagged along with them, and confides her fears to veteran correspondent and father figure Sammy.

Here is a film that tells its story in under two hours, with an outstanding cast, where every moment is perfect, from the opening scene of Offerman’s rehearsed boasting to the final shot that appears behind the credits.

This is a drama, rather than an action movie: when the journalists find themselves in danger, it’s jarring to remember that they are the only unarmed people on screen. They won’t be grabbing guns and shooting their way out. Everyone they meet could kill them on a whim, without consequences. The terror and horror of wandering through this world is palpable. And that, I think is the point: war destroys everything and everyone it touches, whichever side you’re on. If that sounds an obvious lesson, it’s one that mankind has struggled to learn.

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