Harlan Jacobson Reports From SXSW 2024: Civil War

April 26, 2024
By Harlan Jacobson

In ALEX GARLAND’S new film, CIVIL WAR, we are dropped not exactly into the middle of a new American civil war, more like the end game of one that the film wants to say could be just around the corner.

While CIVIL WAR is an indie film ripped from tomorrow’s possible headlines and dressed in contemporary clothes, the template is a classic: from John Ford’s 1939 Stagecoach rapscallions working their own angles inside the coach having to focus on Geronimo outside, to Star Wars unlikely band of rebels. Our heroes travel in a vehicle that looks like a bathtub on wheels embedded with rebels seeking to overthrow what they regard as the illegitimate Empire, under siege by a well uniformed and armed alliance between Florida, Texas and California—it’s not you, if you have to figure that one out. The rebels are closing in on the Empire’s embattled US president holed up in the White House. 

It's deliberately unclear what led to all of this, what the civil war is about, just that director and screenwriter Alex Garland has summoned what chaos looks like to his main characters, seasoned journalists on a road trip, who are stand-ins for us looking at what could be the near future.

The story starts at a teens vs troops skirmish on a campus in New York City — it could’ve been filmed last week, as it turns out. After reflexively snatching Jessie, a baby-faced girl photographer in her 20s, out of harm’s way, legendary female war photographer Lee Smith is planning to take a car with her journo-writing partner, Joel, through rebel held territory from New York down to Washington. They must snake out to Pittsburgh and down through Charlottesville, WVa, where the front lines are (a faint echo, btw, of how Abraham Lincoln had to sneak into Washington for his inauguration). The two journalists are bound for a secret interview with the surrounded President.

It’s clunkily overdesigned the way Garland’s script loads up his vehicle moving forward through the plot with his main characters, Lee and Joel, played by Kirsten Dunst and Brazilian actor Wagner Moura, forced to take two other journalists to signal a demographic mosaic of America.

The first is veteran NY Times reporter Sammy, played by 75 year-old Stephen Henderson, who intuits the secret interview and wants into the car after trying to dissuade them that it’s a suicide mission.

And second is Jessie, played by Cailee Spaeny, the baby-faced girl photographer wannabe whom Smith saved in NY. It looks like Spaeny, who played the lead in Priscilla last year, skidded to a stop and dropped her poupée doll dresses at the Civil War set door. Now Jessie in jeans wants to be a famous war photographer, too.

”Great,” the truculent Lee says to Joel, who let the two stowaways into their white SUV clearly marked PRESS. “Now we have a kindergarten and a nursing home in the back seat.”

That’s the set-up. What transpires is a road trip through a war-zone America of shot up shopping malls and massacre sites, where we get a good look at what things look like when civilization is suspended:

A rural gas station is run by holler cretins who have strung up enemies in the car wash bay and are torturing them to death. The only currency worth having is Canadian—and $300 of it gets you half a tank of gas.

There’s a random firefight scene, then a sniper picks off anything that movies in some playland called Wonderland.

The deeper the pilgrim journalists go, the less civilization remains intact. This echoes both the 1983 Roger Spottiswoode film Under Fire, in which Nick Nolte and Joanna Cassidy take a wrong turn as they thread their way through 1979 Nicaragua and come face to face with anti-Somoza rebels who have no interest in sorting out who’s who.

Civil War’s journalists stumble onto a farm where an uncredited Jessie Plemons has gone full Psycho-Joker as a mass executioner, interrogating behind cherry red shades, before going blam to fill in an open grave the size of a basketball court with everyone who has made a wrong turn. Married to Kristen Dunst, Plemons filled in at the last minute with both humor and menace to run Civil War’s deepest decent into hell, where it reaches its Heart of Darkness, the title of Joseph Conrad’s 1899 anti-colonial novella set in the Belgian Congo, reworked as Vietnam by Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 masterwork, Apocalypse Now.

While the denouement of the plot in Civil War is all about journalism and the journalists, the project of the film was to mine the undercurrent of chatter about a new civil war. This is the point of the audience’s journey in Civil War: Take a good look, people. This Could Be You. This Civil War Could Be Yours in a few months.

While Garland intentionally obscured the politics behind the conflict onscreen — that way it can capture audiences on both sides of our great political questions -- the four journalists on the bus have been written as a model of inclusivity: one strong white woman, one sidekick Latino male, one old black sage taking on the role of Yoda, the carrier of our core values, and one rambunctious young cub reporter whose job it is after a firefight to deliver hackneyed lines like, “I never felt so scared and yet so alive,” as the edit records the look of recognition on the part of Dunst’s world weary, hero photographer. She of course will lose her nerve but regain her wits on cue.

It may have been set in America and filmed in Georgia, but Civil War is the work of a heavily British inflected production team led by Garland, his producers at DNA Films, his cinematographer, his two composers – many of whom also filmed his two most recent films, Ex Machina and Annihilation. In which Alicia Vikander and Natalie Portman each navigated their respective dystopias — A.I. in Ex Machina, and environmental degradation in Annihilation.

For a British production team like the one behind Civil War, making an American dystopia film is either A) Of vital importance to Europe; B) Recognition that the best spectator sport in the world — the American political and cultural meltdown as played out on CNN — is a good ticket to ride; or C) This is where big league filmmaking goes on, where a $50 million or so budget is easier to inhabit than in Blighty, and where a road movie may also be the yellow brick road to a good payday. Far from a bomb, Civil War has been another A24 grenade at the box office.

Having rather carved out no hard and fast political sides in Civil War, Garland and his British production team have sculpted a vision of the American future they want you to see and hear, so that if not you, then certainly the Americans you don’t like, come to their senses.