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Why I Wasn’t Scared by ‘Civil War’

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A great many people appear to have come out of “Civil War,” Alex Garland’s a-house-divided-against-itself-can-kick-highly-equipped-military-ass dystopian combat thriller, feeling all shook up. They’re disturbed by it, unsettled by it. They experience the movie as if it were holding a violent mirror up to the simmering rage of America’s current political/spiritual/ ideological divide. Many critics have been seriously spooked by it, and so have columnists like the New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg. The filmmaker and Facebook pundit Paul Schrader said he was scared by it. And to judge from how many tickets the film is selling, in a $25 million opening weekend that bodes well for the future of adult dramas with topical resonance (on that score let’s all be grateful), I would guess that a solid portion of the audience was scared too.

But I was not scared by “Civil War,” even a little bit. Actually, there was one scene that got to me: the sequence with Jesse Plemons as a stone-cold racist military sociopath in strawberry-colored sunglasses who plays judge, jury and executioner with the nonchalance of someone lighting a cigarette. He greets our heroes, a team of war photographers, by asking each one a simple question: where they’re from. If the answer is somewhere within the United States, that’s cool. If they came from outside the U.S., he answers that, without missing a beat, with a lethal shot from his rifle. (By the time he’s asking the question of a colleague our heroes connected with just a few scenes before, and the man coughs out “Hong Kong,” about all I could think was: Wouldn’t it have been smarter to say Omaha?) Garland invests the sequence with a hair-trigger tension, and we recognize, in the Plemons character’s attitude, a reflection of current jingoistic hatred. For a few moments, the movie looks like a reflection of part of America today.

The rest of the time, we’re caught in a battle spectacle so grandiose, wrapped around a road movie so meandering, that I watched it without a twinge of anxiety (or much fascination, to be honest). Not that I’m casual about what’s happening these days. I’ve been saying for two years that I think Trump could easily be re-elected. A part of me is even more disturbed by the prospect of what might happen if he’s defeated — the do-or-die attempt to steal the election he’ll surely mount. The depth of our national divide is not about to be healed. And recently, I saw a film that did honestly scare me: the superb documentary “Bad Faith: Christian Nationalism’s Unholy War on Democracy,” which anatomizes what’s going on behind the scenes of the powerful movement to turn America into a theocracy, one that Trump is now aligned with. What’s scary these days is reality. What’s not scary about “Civil War,” at least to me, is what a broad, only-in-the-movies concoction it is, and how far from reality it lands. Here’s why I felt that way.

It’s too abstract. By making the jumping-off point for his movie the fact that Texas and California have both seceded from the nation, and are now somehow united in their rebellion, Garland is telling us not to read “Civil War” as an overly easy allegory. It’s not a documentary, folks! The trouble is, we don’t know how to read it…at all. Perhaps we could believe in a world where Texas and California are insurrectionary teammates. But if that’s the case, at least tell us why. Fill in the fiction. Don’t have your script come down to, “Well, it happened…just because.” Watching “Civil War,” we shouldn’t be scratching our heads wondering how we could have devolved from our current state to what’s up onscreen. And if the movie is such fanciful political sci-fi, then why have the rebellion be against an all-too-obvious and flatly drawn Donald Trump stand-in (played by Nick Offerman) who feels like one of those presidential knockoff characters in a countdown-to-Armageddon thriller?

The war photographers keep getting in the way of what you want to see. What is this, the 1980s? That was the heyday of when war photographers, and journalists in general, were glorified by movies like “Under Fire” and “Salvador” and “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” “Civil War” tries to build its drama around the Important Ethical Question of whether its crew of combat shutterbugs, who are working for Reuters, are acting as moral human beings when they stand back and photograph awful things instead of putting down their cameras and trying to halt them. But that all now feels like the subject of some high-school social-studies-class debate. In “Civil War,” Kirsten Dunst and her crew mostly stand between the audience and the combatants, when what we really want is a more dynamic connection to what’s going on inside the combatants. But on that score…

The film starves us for details of our national schism. Once again, I get it: Garland didn’t want to turn his movie into yesterday’s newspaper editorial. But the comment that’s become ubiquitous about “Civil War” — it was probably uttered during the first pitch meeting for it ­— is that the film feels like a heightened version of the events of January 6, 2021. And my question is: Does it? Watching footage of the Jan. 6 insurrection can still be unsettling. So a film that’s engineered to tap our convulsive emotions about that day should, on some level, be almost more disquieting. But apart from a few moments in the opening fanfare of “Civil War,” I never thought of Jan. 6. That’s because there’s rarely a sense that the war we’re seeing is being fought by ordinary citizens. We aren’t allowed to connect to their rage, their ideas, what brought them to the point of social breakdown. They’ve become something else: interchangeable soldiers, extras in camouflage fatigues, movie combatants.

The fighting feels like something out of 100 other movies. The battle scenes are expertly staged on a kinesthetic level, and at times they’re exciting, but they’re never disturbing, because they’re overscaled and hermetic. They don’t feel like they’re bubbling up from the chaos — the clash of values — in the streets. And the “awesome” climax is staged like a video game set among the monuments of Washington D.C., culminating in a sequence that features…a S.W.A.T. team of liberals? The staging is more sophisticated than you’d get in a Gerard Butler thriller entitled “Red State/Blue State.” But not by all that much.

What would a scary version of “Civil War” look like? It would be a movie in which the characters who are fighting each other are interesting.