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REVIEW: ‘Civil War’

For months, word has spread about the new movie Civil War. It’s the most incendiary film of our time! Controversial! A president who claims a third term presides over a crumbling America that literally divides into factions and militias aligned either with him or with a rebel alliance led by Texas and California. Such details are meant to remove it from direct parallels to the present political moment so that the movie and the audience can focus on the consequences of such a horrible devolution of American life. Civil War shows it really can happen here!

Nonsense. This is an episode of The Last of Us or The Walking Dead without the zombies, or a depiction of the first 100 pages of Stephen King’s The Stand without the disease. It’s a war movie about Trump without Trump. The writer-director, Alex Garland, revolutionized the zombie movie with his script for 28 Days Later, and has just added fashionable politics to the mix. He’s very talented and makes interesting and thoughtful and extraordinarily humorless movies and TV—the AI-gonna-kill-ya Ex Machina was his directorial debut and the VR-gonna-kill-ya streaming series Devs are his most notable previous works. He’s very literate and deeply pretentious, as an insanely portentous voiceover reading of Philip Larkin’s poem “Aubade” during the climax of Devs demonstrated. Clearly, he’s a man with a lot on his mind. Which is what makes Civil War such a disappointment, because he’s made a radical political movie and then taken all the politics out of it. The zombies in The Last of Us were basically mushrooms. The zombies here are people shooting each other, but you don’t actually know why.

I’m happy on the one hand not to have seen a film that brings Molly Jong-Fast’s most lurid Trump fantasies (aside from the real-life horror of her hair color) to life, but a story based on the Lincoln Project’s fundraising appeals might have added a modicum of sense to what we see here.

Instead, the movie creates a team of grizzled war correspondents who have been through and seen Hell in other places and are now living through Hell at home. They take a young photojournalist under their wing, and her naïve horror at the things she’s seeing reawakens their moral selves and opens them up to the trauma they’ve been denying. Oh, their humanity! “Take the picture,” the legendary camera-jockey Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst) instructs her young charge. She never smiles. How can she. She has seen too much. Too much, I tell you!

America has collapsed. When you leave New York to drive to Washington on a circuitous route that takes you through Pittsburgh, everything is empty but there are a lot of cars burned out on the highways—a completely familiar trope by now, and understandable as a directorial choice since showing millions of corpses would be expensive.

Instead, it appears the entire Eastern seaboard has been depopulated, which would be quite the feat. We follow our crew of journalists as they wend their way south. They pass a gas station where gun-toting yahoos have strung up a couple of people they hated in high school for being looters. Later, they end up in a shootout in an office park and then in some kind of refugee camp in a high-school football stadium where people are warming their hands over a garbage-can fire and smile at each other pacifically. Then they’re in the middle of a gun battle between two warring forces. Who are they? We don’t know.

The movie seared the conscience of Manohla Dargis of the New York Times and made her profoundly uncomfortable. You’d think a movie critic who’s seen horror movies and war movies for decades wouldn’t be so seared and uncomfortable. I think she’s seared and uncomfortable because she wanted to be—wanted to find this depiction of an America literally at war a ripped-from-the-headlines unnerving thing. It’s fine, I guess, but rest assured (spoilers follow here) the only reason the movie exists is that, in the final moments, we see the Donald Trump stand-in pumped full of bullets.

That scene alone will so thrill Molly Jong-Fast that she might even dye her hair a normal color. You can stay home and watch a Walking Dead rerun.

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