Civic Duty is a fairly standard thriller that uses the post-9/11 climate of terror suspicion as the backdrop for the story of one man’s paranoid crisis. The film has a strong cast, and occasionally interesting stylistic choices, but is ultimately held back by the story they’re choosing to tell. There are very few actual events in the film; it’s mainly just a guy watching another guy from his apartment window, and despite some attempts to infuse visual drama, that’s just not going to make a particularly exciting film.
The story revolves around Terry Allen (Peter Krause), a recently fired CPA who becomes suspicious of his newly arrived “Middle Eastern looking” neighbor. This causes major issues with his wife (Kari Matchett), and, driven by a fear-mongering media, eventually gets him involved with the FBI.
Watching the film, I wasn’t particularly liking it. Engaging with the lead character required the viewer to go along with his post-9/11 suspicion of everyone around him, and I wasn’t ready to make that leap. The film is talking about a time that has, to a large extent, passed. George Bush may still claim we’re in imminent danger, but I just don’t think most people feel that way, and the fact that Allen is so fearful makes him seem irrational. There’s some justification for how he feels in the story, but when dealing with an issue like that, the viewer comes in with a lot of outside baggage.
It’s quite possible that another viewer could sympathize with his fear, and understand the conflict he’s going through, but I felt increasingly alienated from him, to the point that I actively disliked the character for most of the film. Now, having a character you dislike as a protagonist is workable, if that character has a high level of charisma. I wouldn’t want to meet Jack Nicholson’s Frank Costello of The Departed in the real world, but he’s fascinating to watch on screen. Terry Allen has no charisma, and he’s actively alienating.
For most of the film, I wasn’t sure if this is what they were going for. He’s in practically every scene, and you would expect him to have the sympathy of the filmmakers. Maybe he does, I can’t say that for sure. But near the end, I found a reading of the film that worked for me. Allen is meant to be America, or at least the Bush government, frightened by this attack, and driven to paranoid violence as a result. It doesn’t matter if the Middle Eastern guy in the next apartment is a terrorist or not, we have to go after him just to be safe. Terry will do anything in the name of ‘national security,’ but in pursuing this violent end, he loses himself. Reading his character arc as a stand-in for American foreign policy after 9/11 makes the film much more effective on a thematic level, and helps to justify his seemingly irrational behavior.
That salvaged the film on an intellectual level, and it’s a complex feat to make a nation’s journey into a personal one, but it still doesn’t make the film work on the whole. There’s a couple of serious issues. The major one is I just don’t like the main character, and I found him horribly misguided in his choices. Stand in for America or not, the film should still work on a character level.
Now, this isn’t Krause’s fault. His work as Nate on Six Feet Under is some of the best acting I’ve ever seen, in any medium. There he was given a morally ambiguous character who, particularly in the last season, was disliked by much of the audience, but even when he did bad things, we could always understand his actions. Here, the writing just doesn’t give enough justification for Allen’s odd behavior. There’s an implication at the end of the film that he has a history of violent behavior, and he also fears that he’s not exciting enough for his wife, but is that really enough to push this guy so far over the edge? It just didn’t work for me.
The issue with a film like this is the character needs to go on a journey. Unfortunately, they chose to take him from boring, everyday life to paranoid psychotic. Depicting boring, everyday life is always a problem, and the film’s opening sequence certainly captures the dull, dreary world of a commute, but that’s not particularly exciting as a viewer. The score throughout is very subdued, and contributes to this sleepy lack of energy. The film is confined almost exclusively to his apartment, and it becomes oppressive after a while. Hitchcock could pull off the confined setting in Rear Window, but it doesn’t work so well here.
The film reminds me a lot of Hard Candy, both in terms of style and subject matter. But, the issues Candy addressed were inherently more interesting, and the stakes higher. This movie takes most of its running time just to get to its core issue. The final sequence is an improvement over the rest, but it’s held back by again being trapped in an uninteresting visual environment.
Visually, the film uses a lot of handheld camera and jump cuts to try to create excitement. Normally, I love these techniques, but you need more interesting sets and music to turn them into fully realized film moments. Look at a show like Battlestar Galactica to see this style used well, where it complements the narrative action. Here, it’s like the filmmakers knew that their sets were boring, and the film wasn’t really visual, so they just did whatever they could with the camera. Do all the tracking shots and dissolves you want, someone looking up stuff on a computer is never going to be particularly exciting.
So, this film didn’t really work for me. I can see what the filmmakers were trying to do, and there are some successful moments, but in execution, it just doesn’t work. I’m not sure when this film was shot, but it definitely comes out of a 2002 or 2003 mentality, and just doesn’t feel as relevant today as it might have then.