Kitsch Catharsis

Review of Andrew Garland’s Civil War

“My pain is constant and sharp, and I do not hope for a better world for anyone. In fact, I want my pain to be inflicted on others. I want no one to escape. But even after admitting this, there is no catharsis; my punishment continues to elude me, and I gain no deeper knowledge of myself.”—Patrick Bateman, American Psycho (2000).  

Alex Garland’s Civil War is the most pointless, near plotless, and boring movie I have ever seen.

In my head, before seeing the movie, I had thought of Garland as a solid, up and coming screenwriter and director, most notable for having written The Beach (2000) and 28 Days Later (2002), and then directing Ex Machina (2014) and Annihilation (2018), both of which are at least interesting even if the latter dragged a bit. Looking back on it now, I suppose Garland has always been hit or miss and may have peaked a long time ago. Dredd (2012) was terrible, and I don’t remember noticing Men (2022) at all, and it doesn’t look enticing.  

Civil War isn’t so much poorly written in its dialogue as it is lacking in narrative. No detection of imagination. It is very on the nose and presentist. The only reason I can think of that this film was made is to serve as liberal catharsis. The film, to use the term loosely, is a warning (it could happen here style), as Kirsten Dunst says in the script, to America; and the ending both vindicates the prophets and satisfies the intended onlookers.

 If you accidentally click on Captain America: Civil War once Garland’s movie goes to streaming services, don’t correct yourself—and I tend to share Scorsese’s opinion on Marvel. Or go watch Ken Burns instead. I would warn you about spoilers below, but I could do little to ruin this movie for you. I’m doing you a favor, actually.

What is it someone said about the sign of a regime’s firm entrenchment is that its propaganda becomes kitsch? Meaning, its dogma is so thoroughly engrained, so expected, that it doesn’t have to try anymore. Civil War is definitionally clumsy propaganda. It does not even rise to the level of camp, as the kids online say (i.e., so bad it’s good). The movie takes itself far too seriously for that. It’s too earnest.

As a friend put it to me when I was relating the film to him, its like those Christian movies that are too overtly Christian—totally uncompelling and narrowly captive to a singular, one-dimensional and zealous plane. Its like a politicized, The Purge type thriller for liberals.   

Here, There, Everywhere

As I said, the only thing Garland’s latest can provide is catharsis, safe reassurance, for its intended audience. That and rehab for journalists. The attempt to make journalists avant garde, tough, and courageous again or even sympathetic, especially in a hypothetical, apocalyptic scenario, just comes out cringe. Most of the dialogue is spent on Dunst lecturing her young protégé on journalistic neutrality and detachment. At least Sorkin’s Newsroom (2012-2014) explicitly rejected this. Ironically, whilst the antagonist—if there is one—of the movie is an American dictator, it is the journalist image, complete with olive green fatigues, battered SUVs—gas tank on the back like any good apocalyptic vehicle—and cigarettes, attempting to harken back to Bosnia or Beirut glory days, is what comes across tacky and forced.

Famous strongmen like Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein, both of whom are mentioned in comparison to the president, were famous for their cheesy flamboyance, the decorated military uniforms, SCUD missile parades, and stories-high portraits. But it is the protagonists, the war correspondents, that come off contrived.

Civil War tries to make its president like the stereotypical dictator, except not so stereotypical; the audience doesn’t have to guess who inspired his character. A shaved Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) is commander-in-chief, complete with slicked back hair, pursed lips, and addressing the nation (his only lines) in hyperbole in front of a golden background. Gee, I wonder who that’s supposed to be?

That’s where the movie begins. The viewer is alerted to the fact that there is a live domestic conflict and that several secessionist groups exist, that the incumbent regime is holding out in Washington D.C. for an unconstitutional third term, and that the country, except for western pockets apparently, is in chaos. No more of the story is filled out by the end, in case you were wondering. There is no narration, no asides, to clue the audience into the origins or causes of the conflict. Instead, the imagery of war and the PTSD of the journalists is the focus. Again, this is uncompelling because its all hypothetical. To be fair, Garland does nail the imagery. Civil War does depict what a modern American warzone would probably look like, but no amount of aesthetic achievement can make up for bad storytelling, as The Walking Dead demonstrated in relatively short order. This isn’t The Road (2009), and Garland isn’t Cormac McCarthy, and its certainly not Children of Men (2006)—I never thought I’d be begging for Clive Owen to show up in a movie and save it until I saw Civil War.   

We do learn that one militia group, the Western Front (WF), is moving on the capital. Apparently WF—there is also something called the Florida Alliance—is an alliance between Texas and California. The technology, military and civilian, in the film suggests a very near future so this ecumenical is so laughable that it’s got to count as a plot hole.

After the mustache-less Ron Trump opening, we join Kirsten Dunst, a fictional but legendary war correspondent named Lee who garnered fame from covering the “the great Antifa massacre”—yes, that’s actually in the script. Several reviews applaud Garland’s supposed rejection of causal political dynamics in the film. It might be subtle, but it’s all there. What Garland really does is provide his audience with the visual template onto which they can map their own expectations and assumptions. In any case, Dunst’s Lee is joined by Joel (Wagner Moura) who I mistook initially for Pedro Pascal in The Last of Us (2023) for obvious reasons that further reflect the film’s lack of creativity. Civil War Joel is presumably a print journalist because he never takes a single picture, but he must have a good memory too because he doesn’t write anything down either. His only objective, I suppose, is talking to the president.

Stephen McKinley Henderson’s Sammy is the veteran New York Times member of the team sporting suspenders and a cane. The only funny dialogue is a one-line disparagement of the Gray Lady. Sammy is basically the same character Henderson always plays. The last addition to the team is Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), a young freelance photographer and Dunst fangirl. They all decide they’re going to the capital to interview the president before he’s ousted.  

Journo Journey

Early in the journey, the journos pass through an idyllic western Pennsylvania town. It is seemingly insulated from all the goings on. The four-man team takes a moment of respite but notice before leaving that shooters stalk the roof. Nothing is truly untouched by the civil strife whatever appearances suggest. Dunst and Spaeny both mention that their parents live out west with their heads in the sand.

How predictable: the east coast journalist who either outright mocks or sheepishly excuses their supposedly ill-informed or, rather, insufficiently enthusiastic, probably conservative parents. It’s a metaphor for the fly-over-country ingrates who don’t realize (or don’t care) just how in shambles our Democracy really is. In Civil War, these bumpkin boomers are faceless, and the soldiers are nameless. It’s up to the laptop class to save the day with truth telling.

Cliché Corp.

Our heroes are imbedded with WF units who are decked out in full boogaloo gear, Hawaiian shirts and all, Proud Boys style, which is clearly not meant to convey a 1990s Persian Gulf, plain clothes Delta Force or any other venerable vibe. Combatants aren’t the focus at all. Only the bad ones get any airtime or character development, the latter being in short supply in Civil War. Really, the only militia or defected military—its never clear which is which—that get attention are the ones led by Jesse Plemons in the famous “What kind of American are you?” scene from the trailer that sparked a thousand memes. Plemons stole the trailer, at least in online circles, and his acting steals the show.

Plemons is, in my opinion, a superior actor, better than the rest of the Civil War cast by a longshot, but he can’t seem to catch a break. Killers of the Flower Moon (2023) was remarkably boring but at least it did have a discernable plot. Maybe it’s Kirsten Dunst. She nearly killed, not in the good way, The Power of the Dog (2021). (I only recently found out she and Plemons are married. Maybe they should keep collaboration limited to the homestead. Just my two cents.) That the Hollywood Reporter thought Dunst’s performance “incredibly compelling” affirms the movie’s propagandistic status. (And, no, Variety, it’s not a “controversial” film, it’s simple, in the pejorative sense of the word.)

For a moment, the audience catches a whiff of an actual character in Civil War via Plemons. The all too brief sign of life occurs late in the “story” and is snuffed out within a few minutes. In that scene, even Plemons couldn’t save the story from more phoniness.

The journalists stumble upon Plemons and his small band hard at work on a mass grave. Apparently, they are killing anyone who is not American, any immigrants that is. Plemons goes down the line asking the journos from whence they hail. When he gets to the guy from Hong Kong, he shoots him, but not before loudly yelling something about China.

The point is, Plemons is an ignorant and armed xenophobe, obviously. Get it? See? How Creative! Note too that this scene occurs somewhere in West Virginia, a regular Deploraville epicenter. Who knows what goes on in those dark, Celtic forests but it’s probably something scary and racist! The New Yorker was dissatisfied with this set up too, but for different reasons: “Was it really necessary to introduce and then immediately sacrifice two nonwhite characters to score a point about the racism that lurks in America’s heartland?”

The heroes narrowly escape his clutches. Onward! Almost all of the movie is essentially a road trip from New York to Pittsburgh to D.C. via Charlottesville—Philadelphia is said to be too dangerous to drive through which is the only part of the movie that seems entirely plausible to me. And Charlottesville: it’s the “front line” we are told. Ring any bells? I was half expecting them to have Donald Swanson throw out a line about good people on both sides or something—unexpectedly, no tiki torches in sight

End Scene

The only symmetry in the story is presented at the very end, which is strangely abrupt. A bit earlier, Dunst is once again lecturing Spaeny about their noble profession. Get the shot, get the story. That’s it. Spaeny asks if Dunst would photograph her corpse. Dunst puts on her best stoic brooding face but doesn’t answer. Over time, Spaeny, the only one with a character arc, goes from having a nervous breakdown at the sight of violence to rushing headlong into the final siege of Washington snapping pictures left and right. Perhaps the most annoying feature of Garland’s cinematography is the black and white snapshots that flash onto the screen anytime Spaeny takes one. Spoiler: Dunst takes a secret service bullet in the back for Spaeny inside the White House and Spaeny’s shots of her collapsing capture the moment. Her transformation is complete. She is now Dunst and Dunst is rehumanized, or something.

The movie ends moments later as the rebel forces breach the Oval Office and summarily execute the president without negotiation Osama bin Laden style. It literally ends right then. A black-and-white photograph of the dead president fades from view. Bizarre, but doubtless cathartic for the intended viewer, maybe. Third-term Trump is vanquished! Journalism is saved! Apparently, America will now return to normalcy, or will it? Just as the political causality for the war is ignored by Garland, so too is the aftermath. It is irrelevant for his purposes. No better world is suggested, only extension of our malaise.

As several frustrated reviews in regime outlets have expressed, the cathartic kitsch served to them by Garland is ultimately unsatisfying. Are the secessionists put down? Is order restored? Are the racists brought to justice? Et cetera. Surely, the point can’t be that assassinating literally Hitler would all be for naught. In Civil War, satisfaction is allusive. The least Garland could’ve done is give us a good story, but he refused to do even that. Then again, propaganda has little incentive to try.

Image Credit: Unsplash

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Timon Cline

Timon Cline is the Editor in Chief at American Reformer. He is an attorney and a fellow at the Craig Center at Westminster Theological Seminary and the Director of Scholarly Initiatives at the Hale Institute of New Saint Andrews College. His writing has appeared in the American Spectator, Mere Orthodoxy, American Greatness, Areo Magazine, and the American Mind, among others. He writes regularly at Modern Reformation and Conciliar Post.

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