CIVIL WAR (2024)

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CIVIL WAR (2024)

In “Civil War“, Alex Garland takes recent US history and gently nudges it towards the black-eyed “what if”. However, this is not so much a story about the escalating US- war, but a story about witnesses of this war. Garland shows how things go wrong and reflects on the ethics of looking at evil through a lens. The director and screenwriter, always prone to great metaphors.

Civil War” resembles a photo album from a journey through hell. Four journalists travel through the United States ravaged by the “Second Civil War“, and a ticking shutter beats their rhythm. It’s a bit of a war movie, a bit of a road movie: a bit of “Apocalypse Now” or “Children of Men”, and a bit of or “Little Miss Sunshine”. Under one car roof, three generations of reporters create something like a symbolic family. There is “grandpa”-mentor Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson). There are “mom” and “dad”: photographer Lee (Dunst) and correspondent Joel (Wagner Moura). Finally, there is the “little miss”: inexperienced Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), with her father’s camera in her hand and journalistic milk under her nose. The heroes try to make their way through the war zone to make the material of a lifetime. The president of the United States (Nick Offerman) himself acts as the white whale – their personal Colonel Kurtz . Will he be able to take a memorable photo? Will you be able to bend it with a good question? A mission worthy of the first page, headline, and perhaps even the annals of history.

Garland is a good director for a film about looking. Although this time he is closer to the ground (and reality) than ever, he has remained sensitive to the strangeness of the world. Shots in “Civil War” regularly freeze in photographic freeze frames, and Rob Hardy’s camera time and time again captures some cosmic detail, completely outside the decorum of war “realism”. It’s supposedly a high-budget spectacle with explosions, helicopters and a sequence of storming the White House. But at the same time, it is a very strange cinema. Garland first hypnotizes us with the rhythm of “Rocket USA” by Suicide, and then counters with an acoustic ballad. He adds some hip-hop scratching that (quite intentionally) sounds like a cannonade. In one scene he takes our breath away with the power of on-screen silence, and in the next he rediscovers the shocking power of the gun’s roar. When he points: “look at the blade of grass” – we look. When he says: “Sit on the edge of your seat” – we cannot move. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that this is the most precisely directed film of his career. One in which almost every movement (or stillness) of the camera is packed with function and meaning.

Interesting, because in some respects Garland is still telling the same story. His plots take many different forms, but almost always have the same skeleton. There’s always a woman who enters a closed place and comes out changed, that’s it. In this respect too, “Civil War” sticks to the point: there is no “essayistic” tone. A significant (self-ironic?) scene: when Sammy begins to interpret Lee’s own life, she disarms him with a sharp retort: ​​”you WRITER!” “Civil War” is a film with a simple message, aiming straight between the eyes. Except that – completely DIFFERENTLY than in “Men” – the simplicity of the metaphor pays off and gives power to the images and emotions. And yet – absolutely NOTHING in “Men” – this is another story about a girl gradually desensitizing herself to the horror she experiences.

What is important, however, is that the horror of perverted America is not a demonic horror. Sure, Garland scares us a bit with the vision of a preserving United States. But he also makes us laugh a bit, staging the guilty pleasure of pretending to be Trump. Evil here is deliberately banal. This is the evil of a few boys with guns at a provincial gas station. This is the evil of the average-brained guy with the nuclear codes in the White House. When the soldier played by Jessie Plemons points a gun at Joel and asks “what kind of American are you?”, the horror of the situation is only heightened by the absurdly casual tone of the question. The “big” America here is a small America, a country of stupid complexes and even stupider prejudices. The “great” dictator does not live up to his image: whether that of a statesman or a devil. The “great” conflict is a mindless shootout in which those on the left pull the trigger only because those on the right also do so. “Civil War” reminds us that free media exist to break through the gibberish of various propaganda and dig out such truths.

Garland, however, is not riding on a white horse of moral superiority. It records the hypocrisy of the media: chasing the honorable truth as much as simple excitement. He also asks how much is left of analog journalistic ethics in digital times. In one scene, the mature Lee takes a picture of a television set: the digital camera captures the digital screen, and the cold zeros and ones multiply each other infinitely. But in another scene, young Jesse with an antediluvian retro camera uses a modern smartphone as an accessory to a portable darkroom – so analog that the girl has to heat the photographic emulsion with the heat of her own body.

The womb of a journalistic stepfamily turns out to be an ideal field for this generational conflict. The veteran and the novice are like mirrors to each other – so similar and so different at the same time. A distraught Jesse cannot forgive herself for not helping those in need. Meanwhile, Lee impassively snaps photos, explaining that this is their job. “We are just eyes,” he says. The problem is that the eyes get tired. Garland encodes this reflection already in the casting, contrasting the resigned. In this sense, “Civil War” is a film about the necessity of crop rotation – and about the tragedy of puberty. About the fact that new horrors need young witnesses who will not look away. Even if they pay for it in the end with the same tiredness and indifference that afflicted the old ones.

It is possible that turning your eyes away from evil is a natural, instinctive and healthy reflex. But the line between “I don’t look because I’m so delicate” and “I don’t look because I don’t give a damn” is very thin. That is why a photojournalist believes that in order to combat evil, it must be documented. The problem is that images of evil desensitize us to evil. When photographing death, you risk that you will end up photographing the death of a loved one – and your eyelids won’t even twitch. Will this mean you stop being human? And what does it even mean: human? In a roundabout way, Garland returns to the main question from “Ex Machina”. Still no answer.

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