Civic Duty
To Believe or Not to Believe

I can’t be the only one on the planet who, somewhere around 2003, began to find fiction based on the September 11th tragedy more than tiresome. So when one pops up nearly six years later, once again exploiting the conundrum of profiling versus prejudice, I had my suspicions. But given the strength of the casting and the arthouse release, I had hope for something a little different.

I was disappointed.

Peter Krause plays Terry Allen, a seemingly well-balanced accountant who has just been laid off. Though he wastes no time in sending off résumés, making follow-up calls, and even attending interviews, he still has a little more time on his hands than is good for his overactive imagination. When a Middle Eastern man moves into a ground floor apartment in the same building, his suspicions are aroused, and despite the welcoming and accepting attitude his photographer wife, Marla, (played convincingly and sympathetically by Kari Matchett) models for him, his 9/11-spawned distrust overtakes him. In the end, it’s not only his integrity that is lost.

Richard Schiff as Agent Hillary in Civic DutyThe main problem I had with the movie is that Terry Allen is never a trustworthy character. From the outset, he shows himself to be quick to judge, short-tempered, and somewhat shady. We know there’s something about him we don’t know, but since we can’t trust him in the first place, that sense of shadiness is more like a pesky mosquito to be batted away than a firefly to be followed. The movie hinges on his perceptions, so the inability to even begin to trust him leaves the movie decidedly unhinged.

On the positive side, there are two performances which really stand out. Matchett, as mentioned earlier, carries more than her share of the dramatic load as a supportive wife who still draws healthy boundaries with intolerable behavior. Her depiction of a progressive woman who believes the best about people until proved otherwise is stunning and plausible, since she must demonstrate her optimism toward both her husband and the suspected terrorist. But the man who truly steals the show is Richard Schiff, who plays Agent Hillary—the FBI agent following up on Allen’s report of suspicious activity. Schiff balances the intensity of an FBI agent with the intelligence and dedication of a true law enforcer, providing an enjoyable, artistic performance in an otherwise annoying theater experience.

Civic Duty manipulates more than the “justified suspicion” of so many Americans who are ruled by the illusion that we are entitled to security and privacy, freedom and safety. The truth is that sometimes those things are mutually exclusive, and there is always some risk associated with living. This film does nothing to promote a healthy attitude toward terrorism, suspicion, people of other faiths or backgrounds, or national security. It simply exploits, one more time, the fears that somehow our “freedom,” our “rights,” and our “security” are more at risk than they have ever been before, and we are somehow able to control whether or not such American entitlements will endure.

This movie is an unfortunate addition to the psycho-terrorist-FBI-thriller genre. I found it tedious and annoying, and no amount of DEET would repel it. I consider it my civic duty to recommend avoiding this one; the “twisted” ambiguous ending allows people to see what they want to see, and whatever irony director Jeff Renfroe and writer Andrew Joiner may have intended to portray is thoroughly undermined.

Civic Duty is rated R for “language and some threatening situations.” While these issues don’t show up until pretty late into the movie, they are worth a warning. I’ve seen worse PG-13s, though.

Courtesy of a local publicist, Jenn attended a press screening of Civic Duty.