Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Topical Versus Timeless

Years ago, when I was working as a tutor at a community college in New York, I was having a conversation about something (I don't remember what) with a fellow tutor of mine who was from Nigeria. In relation to whatever we were discussing, I mentioned "the Civil War". I took it as a given that my colleague would know which war I was talking about (THE Civil War), but he said to me in reply, "Which Civil War?". Good question. There have so many civil wars over time, and in relation to Nigeria alone the Nigerian Civil War, or Biafran Civil War, from 1967 to 1970 -- at least 100,000 military casualties and millions of deaths from war-related starvation -- is much more recent than the war I was referring to and took for granted he would know I was talking about, the American Civil War. Of course, he did know which war I was referencing, but he wanted to make it a point that I was being a little American-centric in saying "the" Civil War when maybe that isn't the most important civil war, historically speaking, to every person from every country. Anyway, it's odd, but this was a thought I had leaving the film Civil War, which I went to the other day.

First off, let me say, I liked the film, which is an exercise in grim, almost non-stop tension. And I get why Alex Garland, in conceiving and then executing the story, did not want to make it so topical in its reference points to US current events that people watching the film, say, ten years from now might find it hopelessly dated. But at the same time it seems a little bit narratively disenguous to title a film Civil War at this particular historical moment in the United States and then make it so vague in its political underpinnings that it in effect becomes a film about war, or civil war, in general, a war that could be taking place anywhere in the world. That in and of itself is not a paltry aim, and, once again, the film is compelling. It doesn't sugarcoat anything. But a United States in which the states of Texas and California, forming the Western Alliance, are allies against an authoritarian president who has refused to leave office after a second term begs for at least a little explanation. Or is it the film's oblique suggestion that the two large and powerful states, which are are so different in their politics, have indeed banded together to fight a common fascistic enemy? This does seem to be implied. And there are other alliances mentioned in the film such as the Florida Alliance. In other words, the United States has descended into a state of semi-chaos, and I think a character mentions at one point that once the president's loyalist forces are defeated, the forces fighting the rebellion very well might turn against each other, a development that has happened in many a civil war in many countries. Once the enemy is defeated, allies become enemies and war grinds on. The film is plausible, and in today's world it is true that things change so fast and alliances are made that are so unexpected, but I for one could have used a bit more background, however speculative, in exactly how the country has devolved into the state portrayed in the film.

As it stands, journalists are the film's heroes, and there's nothing wrong with that of course. In this regard, the film reminded me a bit of the excellent 1983 film Under Fire, starring Gene Hackman, Nick Nolte, and Joanna Cassidy. That film is set during a real revolution, in the last days of the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua, as the government forces and a horrible authoritarian regime are being overthrown by the rebel Sandinista forces. Like Civil War, the conflict is seen through the eyes of journalists who put their asses on the line to document the war. It's a film absolutely worth seeing, by the way, and not unlike Civil War, Under Fire ends at a moment almost everyone can agree is a relative high point, a brief moment of optimism, before the inevitable fighting that will ensue between the victorious forces and their factions. Before the new authoritarians, before the inevitable corruption of ideals, the defeat of the one who deserves defeat happens. Civil War, like Under Fire, ends on just the right beat.

Is it possible to make a politically oriented film that is almost aggressively topical but not so topical in its references that it dates fast? It's difficult, but besides Under Fire while watching Civil War, I also thought about films from the Cold War era that tackled nuclear war fear and all the anxieties the US had about Soviet and Chinese communism. The best films of that time, whether dramatic or satiric, tap into then current events and the audience's worries but also do stand up to later scrutiny because they're detailed, well-told stories, films like Fail Safe and The Manchurian Candidate, and, yes, Dr. Strangelove. Those are films both specific to their time but also that can illuminate aspects of human weakness, aggresstion, stupidity, and so forth that are timeless. They are good models for capturing and understanding a particular historical moment in the United States but that also have a broader scope. Civil War almost if not quite gets there, but what is there in the film is strong.

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