You can see where this is going, and you know it's going to end badly. The only question is, for whom?

James Plath's picture

September 11th brought out the best in people . . . and the worst. On the negative side, frustrated and panicked Americans began to discriminate against (and in many cases, persecute) anyone who fit the "terrorist profile"--that is, anyone who looked Middle Eastern, and that included a lot of Indians and sub-continental others as well. Hate crimes against those ethnic groups spiked, as normally sane people began to see suspicious activity all around them, their paranoia fueled by Homeland Security's color-code alerts.

"Civic Duty" tries to put a face on those negative reactions, to create a microcosm that could dramatize both the emotional climate of post-9/11 and the extent to which some people felt driven to commit what amounted to hate crimes . . . all in the name of "national security."

That's a noble and socially relevant goal for a film. Unfortunately, from the moment we're introduced to a shell-shocked and ready-to-snap Terry Allen (Peter Krause, "Six Feet Under"), we can see he's got serious problems that have nothing to do with September 11th or any of the background TV yellow-level noise that plays throughout the movie. From the git-go he seems more like the character Michael Douglas played in "Falling Down," who also goes ballistic after losing his job, and also seems to have a tentative relationship with his wife that's a contributing factor. But just about the time you begin to think maybe that's writer Andrew Joiner's point--that it was people with personal problems who committed these hate crimes--the film pulls a 180, and the logic that's supposed to hold everything up starts to buckle like poorly designed scaffolding.

Director Jeff Renfroe also pushes a few too many buttons and pulls a few too many levers to create a visual style that would suggest the screwed-up way Allen sees the world around him. It's as if he used every trick in the cinematographer's playbook:

• sped-up sequences
• multiple exposures
* stop-motion/skip-printing sequences
* slow motion
* blurry-to-sharp focus
* sharp-to-blurry
* tilted and hand-held cameras
* extreme close-ups
* extreme cropping
* sound-video disconnect
* overhead shots
* up-angle shots
* rotating (180-degree) shots
* exaggerated sound effects (thrown phone sounds like a bomb)
* time-lapse photography

Put that all together and combine it with an apparently deliberate graininess and it's just too much--too heavy-handed and self-conscious, to the point where we start to notice the "tricks" in and of themselves, rather than point-of-view devices.

That's too bad, because the script, though no world-beater, is workmanlike and the performances strong. Krause does a fine job of capturing the volcanic temperament of someone behaving with exaggerated calmness because he could blow at any moment. Richard Schiff ("The West Wing") also does a fine job as FBI agent Tom Hilary, whom Krause calls to report his worst nightmare: a Middle Eastern man (Khaled Abol Naga) who moves into an apartment next door. The mentally unstable Allen, who, without a job finds himself with about as much time on his hands as if he were confined by a broken leg, watches from his apartment window as the "terrorist" moves in with (he thinks) surprisingly little baggage, takes his trash to the dumpster at three in the morning, consorts with other Middle Easterners, receives boxes at his door, and has what looks like a meth lab in his apartment. How does he know? Unlike Hitchcock's paranoid protagonist in "Rear Window," Allen is mobile, and enters his neighbor's apartment after the door gives way as he knocks.

His wife tells him to cool it and the FBI agent he calls tells him to back off, which Allen's mind processes as "keep up with your surveillance." You can see where this is going, and you know it's going to end badly. The only question is for whom, and I won't spoil that for you. But I will say that I found the ending perfectly unsatisfying.

"Civic Duty" has a lot of graininess that seems to have been a deliberate choice. It's presented in 1.78.1 widescreen and stretches to fill out the entire monitor on a 16x9 television. Because of that graininess, it looks rough as a home movie. Don't expect anything more.

The audio is a little better, conventionally speaking, with an English Dolby Digital 5.1 featured soundtrack delivering decent sound and an English 2.0 option as well. The tonal quality is deep and rich, with good treble/bass balance. Subtitles are in English (CC) and Spanish

There are no extras.

Bottom Line:
After debuting at Tribeca in April 2006 and hitting 11 other festivals, "Civic Duty" had a limited U.S. release and went pretty much straight to DVD. I'm not saying it deserved that fate, but one reason for its relegation to relative obscurity is certainly the want-it-both-ways nature of the film. On the one hand, it seems made-for-TV facile in its script and one-dimensional characters, playing to the headlines and popular tastes; on the other hand, it tries to be self-consciously artsy. And those two impulses clash more violently than Mr. Allen and his neighbor.


Film Value