Terrorism can make you crazy. Or more accurately, U.S. media hype about terrorism can drive you to believe. In Civic Duty, an accountant named Terry (Peter Krause) takes to heart all the TV reports on terrorist plotting, Homeland Security Alert Levels, and demands that he keep his eyes open for “suspicious” persons. Immersed in fear and eager to perform his “duty,” Terry loses sight of himself.
Newly laid off from another job and now stuck at home printing out resumes, Terry watches his photographer wife Marla (Kari Matchett) leave each day with her yoga mat and camera bag. She’s got stuff to do, he knows, while he’s stuck with nothing. His first encounter with another person in the film suggests why he might be feeling so lonely: he barks at a bank teller (Vanesa Tomasino) for referring to an ATM as an “ATM machine,” the lazy redundancy of the phrases bothering him beyond all reason. The teller keeps her cool, handing over his paperwork while stifling her upset at his tirade. Terry apologizes, but he’s been revealed: he’s a tyrant and a geek, an accountant who thinks he’s necessary.
Feeling increasingly angry, wretched, and worried, Terry catches a glimpse of a new neighbor—Gabe Hassan (Khaled Abol Naga)—moving into an apartment across his courtyard, with notably few belongings. Primed to worry, Terry immediately suspects this “Middle Eastern-looking guy” is up to something shady; when Marla suggests his phrasing belies prejudice, he offers her alternatives (“Would you prefer that I said ‘raghead’,” he jeers, or maybe “‘Camel jockey’? ‘Sand nigger’? A nigger who lives in the sand?”). He can’t begin to understand her distress at his language. She’s beginning to see her husband as a stranger, accuses him of spending his days “spying on our neighbor like some paranoid rightwing whack job.” Here Terry believes he has cause. After all, he asserts, the past demonstrates the need for vigilance, in particular, his sort of vigilance. “Just because they’re paranoid,” he protests, “Doesn’t mean they’re wrong. I mean, in case you forget, Marla, this shit has happened. People have overlooked their neighbors and shit has fucking blown up.” Marla’s face pales. She slams the door on her way out.
Locked up inside his circular, TV-induced logic, Terry prowls the internet in search of “Most Wanted” photos, follows Gabe around town, finds insidious meaning in the slightest detail. When he sort of accidentally sneaks inside Gabe’s apartment (the door’s open when he knocks, quite conveniently) and finds beakers and tubes, he calls the FBI. (The fact that the camera careens wildly during Terry’s discovery, intimating his shock, asks you to share it, the sheer violence of the framing constructing significance.) Special Agent Hillary (Richard Schiff) appears almost instantly, listens patiently to Terry’s story, then essentially dismisses him, suggesting that he needs to stay out of other citizens’ apartments, to leave the sneaking around and illegal activities to experts. That would not, Hillary cautions, be him. “I can’t be this make believe guy,” he intones, knocking down doors and taking down suspects without process. Oh no. That guy is not real. That guy is only on TV.
Still, Terry can’t help himself. His increasing irrationality upsets Marla to the point that she leaves, yet another sign to Terry that no one sees what he sees, that his perspective is special, acute, and right. Jeff Renfroe’s movie sticks closely to that perspective, the camera peering through his window at Gabe’s door one story down, framing close-ups at sharp angles and in deep, greenish-filtered shadows. When at last Terry confronts Gabe, the film lurches into a very tightly focused, essentially two-character, standoff, punctuated by slamming shot/reverse-shots more melo than dramatic. With Gabe tied up in a chair and Terry looming over him with gun in hand, the movie inserts the usual sorts of questions, concerning revenge, righteousness, and morality (the sorts of questions already made acute in pervious movies, including Three Kings).
These questions are surely complex and crucial, as Gabe presents them. Would Terry want to avenge his own wife’s death? How does ideology frame definitions of good and bad? Who gets to call himself righteous and who in his right mind would assume the label of “evil”? Terry’s face contorts and the shadows in Gabe’s kitchen turn even more sinister. Grrr. What’s the answer?
But for all the familiar exigency of these moral posers, Civic Duty‘s subtler queries are just as pressing. Terry’s a “whack job,” but he didn’t come from nowhere. The movie offers a way out, suggesting he’s got “issues” that have nothing to do with TV or official fear-mongering, including his lost job and his lost wife, not to mention his apparently lost mind. But there’s another option too, that Terry’s pathology mirrors and repeats that of the portentous villains he means to stop.
Fear is everywhere on TV, Civic Duty submits, not so originally. Terry spends hours looking at Osama Bin Laden’s latest video threat, news stories on bombings, identity thefts, and the menace of illegal immigration. He doesn’t quite attend to the one on rising hate crimes, though here the movie suggests Terry’s succumbing to prejudice and panic rather than sorting out evidence as carefully as he thinks he is. From deep inside his head, it’s almost impossible to see out. And while it asks you to make your own judgment of Terry’s dire perspective, the movie doesn’t pretend you’re not pummeled by the same media as he is.