America is out of fix in Alex Garland’s latest feature, Civil War. The shimmering union has collapsed; secessionist forces pummel a disintegrating federal power. A nervous president rehearses a phony speech before going on air. As he speaks, we’re given flashes of the outside world: repression, unrest, blood in the streets. The imagery, bleak and brutal, nods back to the disturbing news footage we glimpse at the start of 28 Days Later, the post-apocalyptic film Garland wrote for Danny Boyle over two decades ago.

Here is the catch, though. The large-scale civic meltdown in Boyle’s film was spurred by a mysterious viral outbreak. What is the virus, named or unnamed, real or ideological, infecting the world of Civil War? We never know for certain. It stays a puzzle, one that Garland — known for directing startling sci-fi masterpieces like Ex Machina and Annihilation, plus the wickedly enjoyable series Devs and the 2022 allegorical horror film Men — seems determined to preserve. It is a bold move, teetering on obfuscation, to withhold the source of conflict. All that’s granted is that America has fallen, and that we, as viewers, must sort through the rubble.

Civil War is not science fiction — Garland’s forte — but it is categorisable in a genre that’s sci-fi adjacent: dystopia. The film is set in the near future, in a country in violent flux. Tall plumes of smoke rise from sun-lit cities. Bombs go off at protest sites. The ‘Western Forces’, comprising unlikely allies Texas and California, have raised a military and are closing in on D.C.. The President (a clean-shaven Nick Offerman) is a fascist crackpot holed up inside the White House. He’s holding a third term in office, having disbanded the FBI and ordered airstrikes on his fellow countrymen. He has also refused interviews for months, a detail likely to earn nervous chuckles when the film arrives in Indian theatres next week.

Cailee Spaeny in ‘Civil War’

Cailee Spaeny in ‘Civil War’

We follow the story from the viewpoint of a team of reporters covering the conflict. Lee (Kirsten Dunst), a world-weary photojournalist with a distinguished Wikipedia page, and her colleague Joel (Wagner Moura), set out from New York to DC to interview and photograph the President (“Interviewing him is the only story left,” Joel says. ). They’re joined by cub photographer Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) and wise old-timer Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson, always wonderful). In a white van, the quartet travel from city to broken city, hoping to disband in Charlottesville — the frontline of the conflict — before Lee and Joel proceed onwards to DC.

Civil War (English)

Director: Alex Garland

Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Nick Offerman, Wagner Moura, Cailee Spaeny, Stephen McKinley Henderson

Run-time: 109 minutes

Storyline: A team of journalists roam a future America riven by armed conflict

Everywhere they go, as expected, some danger or devastation awaits. Garland and cinematographer Rob Hardy generate eeriness from a series of tense passages, and this is even before Jesse Plemons shows up in candy-red sunglasses bearing an assault rifle. If you want Civil War in summary, skip ahead to this scene whenever the film drops on streaming. Plemons’ performance, over in a matter of minutes, embodies all that’s broken and beleaguered about our current world predicament. It’s a genuinely, distressingly creepy scene, unnerving even Moura’s Joel, the action-hungry reporter with an unflappable grin.

Dunst finds the appropriate hardness for Lee. She is rigorous but humane, somewhat tuckered out, and is nicely matched with Spaeny as her bright-eyed mentee: “You know her stuff?” Jessie quizzes Lee, asking her about Lee Miller, the pioneering American photojournalist. As the group progresses, Jessie is simultaneously sensitised and desensitised to the dangerous, emotionally debilitating work of conflict journalism. “We record, so other people ask,” Lee counsels, though she gets caught out by Sammy, who asks her if it’s all existential, the “thing” that’s eating her.

Civil War premiered at SXSW in March and was recently screened at the Red Lorry Film Festival in Mumbai. Reviews, while largely effusive, have wrung hands over the film’s deliberately vague politics. Garland has been pressed for answers, justly so; you cannot call a film ‘Civil War’ and release it in a U.S. presidential election year without trading in specifics. Garland has defended his decision not to topicalise his film — making it about gun control, say, or right-left polarisation — calling cinema ‘a broad church’. “It’s really a film about why polarisation is not a great thing,” he told Time magazine. “It’s trying to have a conversation. It’s trying to find common ground.”

Garland’s intentions and far-sightedness feel noble, though certain doubts linger. This is, after all, the biggest-budgeted film (around $50 million) that American indie house A24 has produced, and even American indie houses have theatres to fill. ‘Common ground’ is what liberal, mass-exporting Hollywood usually reaches for when premeditating ticket sales. The film’s inveighing against a generic, all-purpose fascism — Offerman’s President is clumped together with charismatic dead dictators like Gaddafi and Mussolini — feels conveniently broad. “Someone is trying to kill us, we are trying to kill them,” a belligerent says, a line that conveys everything and nothing about the current state of affairs in America. Civil War ranges far and wide, at times blisteringly so, but is curiously cold on the home front.

Civil War releases in theatres in India on April 12


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