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Matthew d’Ancona’s Culture: Civil War is quite an accomplishment

Our editor-at-large’s rundown of the pick of the week’s cinema, books and streaming

Cailee Spaeny and Kirsten Dunst in Alex Garland’s dystopian action thriller Civil War. Photo: A24


General release

Rarely has a great film been so poorly served by its trailers – which made Alex Garland’s fourth outing as a director look like it might be no more than an action-packed road trip movie with a makeshift family unit fighting fascists: Meet the Millers for the MAGA era.

In fact, Civil War is so much better than that. When we meet acclaimed war photographer Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst, superb), her gung-ho colleague Joel (Wagner Moura), veteran reporter Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), and cub photo-journalist Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), they are in a riot-torn New York and the national conflict is already well advanced.

We learn that the rebel Western Alliance of states, led by Florida and Texas, is closing in on Washington DC and the unnamed president (Nick Offerman) – who has seized a third term and disbanded the FBI. The quartet sets off to land an exclusive interview with the besieged commander-in-chief.

The easy path would have been to make Civil War an explicit warning against the potential consequences of Donald Trump’s re-election this November. But Garland is much too sophisticated a storyteller for that, and he pointedly withholds any real explanation of the war’s origins.

Civil War is not about Trumpism but the integrity of journalism, just as Apocalypse Now – always a reference point for Garland – was, as Francis Ford Coppola insisted, about truth rather than the specifics of the Vietnam war.

“It’s a film that comes out of anger,” Garland told The Atlantic. “If you create a situation where the press cannot be trusted, everyone is screwed”. That he manages to frame this issue so intelligently in the context of a nerve-shredding, relentlessly thrilling IMAX movie is quite an accomplishment.



You have to be quite a polymath to publish a first-class thriller and a controversial report on the future of the Foreign Office in the space of a few weeks – while also being head of an Oxford college. But then Tom Fletcher, a former No 10 foreign policy adviser, has always been a bit of a renaissance man.

In the second Ed Barnes adventure (the sequel to The Ambassador), the adventurer-diplomat has been sent to Nairobi as high commissioner with his daughter, Stephanie, and a brief to keep a low profile. Meanwhile, an assassin is at large, his victims having in common only their complicity in the ravages of climate change.

A terrorist attack in Nairobi becomes personal for Barnes, who (as is his habit) heads off-piste to uncover the truth and avert geopolitical disaster. An excellent page-turner.


Apple TV

Meanwhile, in the 18th century… Benjamin Franklin (Michael Douglas) lands at the Breton port of St Goustan, Auray, on December 4, 1776, tasked with persuading the French to help him save the American Revolution.

Now aged 79, Douglas has, remarkably, never before acted in a period drama, but he deploys all his natural swagger and charisma to fine effect in this eight-part series, based on Stacy Schiff’s terrific book, Dr Franklin Goes to France: How America Was Born in Monarchist Europe (2005).

Franklin’s nine-year tour of duty in France, first as commissioner and then ambassador, was indeed an essential chapter in America’s struggle for independence and director Tim Van Patten does the story justice, both as a sumptuous ancien régime spectacle and a protracted game of chess in which the diplomatic stakes are as high as they could be.

Watch out especially for Daniel Mays, fresh from his triumph in Guys & Dolls at the Bridge Theatre, as Edward Bancroft, the secretary to the American commissioners in France, who is a much more complex character than he first appears.


Prime Video

How can one not love a post-apocalyptic series that opens with the title card: “THE END”? Based on the blockbuster video game franchise of the same name, this eight-part series draws us into a world, two centuries after nuclear war, in which small groups of pristine survivors in blue uniform plan the future of the human race in “Vaults”, while, on the surface, mayhem reigns that makes Mad Max look like The Great British Bake Off.

After her wedding is ruined by a vault invasion, Lucy MacLean (Ella Purnell) heads upwards to the dystopian ruins of Los Angeles, hoping to rescue her kidnapped father Hank (Kyle MacLachlan).

There, she encounters “The Ghoul” (Walton Goggins, excellent), a mutilated bounty hunter whose character reflects the declared debt of the showrunners (Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Graham Wagner) to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

The series revels in 1950s camp as well as 2020s CGI. It is hugely entertaining. Nuclear culture completists will also want to know that Christopher Nolan’s brother, Jonathan, directs the first three episodes. Who knew that the apocalypse could be so much fun?

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