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Wagner Moura Is Still Holding On To Hope

Wagner Moura’s characters are accustomed to being in high-pressure situations. Perhaps best known for his role in the gritty crime saga “Elite Squad” and playing Pablo Escobar in “Narcos,” the 47-year-old Brazilian actor is now part of the year’s most talked-about film, the dystopian action-thriller “Civil War,” in which he stars as Joel, a veteran journalist who works with intrepid photographer Lee (Kirsten Dunst) as they cover the violent fall of U.S. democracy. Wielding the sort of irreverent humor and cynical worldview that wouldn’t have been out of place in Robert Altman’s equally caustic war film “M*A*S*H,” Joel races to D.C., learning that the rebels will be ousting the sitting president any day now. Joel wants the exclusive—even if it means losing his life in the process.

“It’s a cautionary tale,” Moura says over Zoom about a film that has inspired significant debate even before its premiere at South by Southwest last month. He welcomes those conversations. “This is what I want with the things that I do—I want people to go and see it. I’m not interested in doing anything for intellectual [reasons]—I want to make films for people to go see [that have] style. I think all of [writer-director Alex Garland’s] films are so smart. I think this time, hopefully, he’s going to have the commercial success that he deserves.”

During our brief chat, we talked about how Moura’s upbringing in Brazil informs how he looks at this film’s upsetting subject matter. Moura also has thoughts about the ways in which Americans take their liberties for granted—and why he’s holding onto hope about the future, despite all the reasons to fear that our political divisions may be permanent.

You went to school for journalism and worked as a journalist for a little while. Did you ever have aspirations of covering war zones like your character Joel?

No, I don’t think so. I studied journalism with a very romantic idea of … I wanted to do investigative journalism and discover things and fight corruption. I wanted to change the world—do something—but my first years working as a journalist, very quickly, it was like, “Oh, it’s going to be tougher than I thought.” 

But I have to say, man, most of my friends are journalists. Doing journalism, going to college and studying, it was a great thing in my life—the things that I read, the people that I met. I have great admiration for journalism, and it really breaks my heart the moment that journalism is going through. I speak with my friends and they’re like, “Dude, this shit is about to end,” which tells a lot about this state that we are in right now—and says a lot about the reason that Alex [Garland] decided to make this film. This polarization that we are going through right now has a lot to do with the lack of respect that people are having for the work of journalists.

When they say, “This shit is about to end,” what do they mean?

[Journalism] as a business. People are getting information through social media, and then the spread of crazy narratives—that’s lack of fact checking, that’s lack of journalism. When you see world leaders discrediting the work of journalists and putting their lives in danger, it’s a very hardcore moment. 

I really like the fact that this is a film about good journalists—a very specific kind of journalist, which is war journalists. I’m very proud of playing a journalist—I’ve done that before in a series called “Shining Girls,” which I loved. But this one feels a very urgent call to reestablish journalism as an important pillar of democracy.

Depending on your point of view, Joel is either cynical or a pragmatist—he’s definitely not an idealist. Did playing him that way come from Garland’s script or from the research you did talking to war journalists?

I think that is a lot Alex—it’s how Alex wrote the character and how he wanted journalists to be perceived as people that are just there to present, which is the whole idea of this film. It’s a film that’s not biased—it’s a film that doesn’t have a political agenda. It’s seen through the eyes of these journalists.

But, also, it makes sense when I spoke with [war journalists]. Of course, there are different people—there’s journalists that go to the war zone and the core of what they do is to show, to report, but some of them have very strong political views on the world, and that translates in the way they write. But Joel is more pragmatic and a little cynical—he’s seen it, he’s been there, he’s been around for too long. It’s about getting the job done—it’s about doing reporting. 

Some of the reviews out of SXSW questioned whether “Civil War” was exploring or, really, just exploiting the divisions in our country to make a big-budget action movie. 

Yeah, I don’t agree. I think any good artwork tends to capture the zeitgeist—the anxieties, the joy, the fears that we as a community are going through. We all know that we live in a very polarized moment— and not only here, everywhere—and we all know that polarization is a threat to democracy. 

Are we saying there’s going to be a civil war in the U.S.? Not at all. But we all know that polarization can lead to social conflict, and so I always felt that I was doing a very important … I mean, I am a political person. The only film that I directed in my life is a very political film about people that resisted the dictatorship in Brazil. I like Costa-Gavras. I like Gillo Pontecorvo. I think Alex managed to do something extraordinary, which is to make a potential big Hollywood blockbuster that is also a very strong political film. I think most people were expecting the film to be something along the lines of liberal/conservative, and it’s not about that at all. It’s about the aftermath of a polarized situation.

With “Civil War,” American viewers may be shocked to watch the types of war scenes they’re used to seeing in movies that are set in foreign lands take place on U.S. soil. Being from Brazil and being a political person, do you see any analogies between what you’ve experienced back home and what “Civil War” shows happening in America?

I think it’s going to make sense everywhere. In Brazil, we also had the election deniers, and we also had an invasion of the institutions in Brazil, exactly in the same way that happened here. Brazil is very polarized, as every place else is, unfortunately. But for Americans, it has a special scary feeling—the images that you guys are used to seeing taking place in the Middle East, in Africa, in South America, to be seen with the amount of realism that Alex shot this movie in the White House, in Washington, D.C., I think it creates a cognitive dissonance in the American audience’s brain.

I wonder, from your perspective, if it indicates just how innocent or naive Americans are—we haven’t experienced many of these commonplace traumas on our home turf. 

Talking about the invasion of the [U.S.] Capitol—and in Brazil of institutions—Brazil was very quick in sending people to jail, finding the financiers and denying political power to the guy who was responsible. The former president, he can’t be elected anymore. We acted really fast, not because Brazil is a stronger democracy—no, it’s the opposite, our democracy [is] full of problems—but Brazil was under a very heavy dictatorship from ‘64 to ‘85, so Brazilians know how bad that is. It’s a collective memory of that—we don’t want that to happen again. 

Americans, you still think that democracy is a given—you take it for granted—and that’s very dangerous, because no country is immune to authoritarianism and fascism.

You are a fan of Italian neorealism. Those movies were made after World War II as the country was recovering after the widespread death and destruction, the filmmakers focusing on an intense, stripped-down realism. Are there any comparisons between that type of acting and the kind you delivered in “Civil War,” which is meant to look at a civil war in realistic terms?

[Garland] created a very immersive experience for the actors. The Italians of the postwar, they worked with non-actors and handheld cameras. Most of [“Civil War”] is handheld with this very special camera—it’s the Ronin that self-stabilizes the image so it’s not shaky, but it’s handheld. There was so many Navy SEALs and military people among the extras, they knew what they were doing—you could see that the way they move and the things that they would say to us during the shootings were very precise. 

[Garland] used full rounds, it was so noisy in the third act of the film—at some point, we all felt that we were in the middle of it. He wanted the audience to experience this immersive feeling, but in order for that to happen, the actors had to go through that, too. It was so noisy, man—the noise that you hear in a movie theater was what we were experiencing there, too. Maybe I’m forcing a parallel with Italian neorealism—maybe I’m going too far—but the idea was to make it feel realistic.

Joel does not strike me as a hopeful person. After making “Civil War,” how are you feeling about the future of America? 

I like to say that I’m very pessimistic about the present, but I’m very optimistic about the future. In the history of all authoritarian, all fascist governments, the first thing that they want to shut down is arts, universities and journalism—these are the first three targets. I believe in a film like this—I don’t think we’re going to change the result of anything, but I believe in journalists, I believe in professors, I believe in college, I believe in science. And I think there are many people that are up to that fight, to keep doing what they do. And so I’m optimistic. I think that we are going to figure this out.

You’re a dad. Do you feel like you need to hold onto hope for your kids’ sake?

As a dad, I have to be optimistic about the future. I believe in their generation. I look at my kids, I think they’re great kids. I think some of their friends are great kids, too. There’s so many things that feel better now than when I was a kid. I remember my gay friends, when I was a teenager, they couldn’t say they were gay—they were ashamed. I see my kids’ friends, and they’re open about their sexuality and they’re accepted. There are so many [good] things [right now], you have a reason to be optimistic about humanity [on] so many levels. It’s not a given—we have to keep fighting. But I like the good fight, and I’m up to it.

Tim Grierson

Tim Grierson is the Senior U.S. Critic for Screen International

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