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.