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CIVIL WAR (2024)

Release Date: 04/12/24 [Cinemas]
Genre: Action.

Studio: A24. 

"A journey across a dystopian future America, following a team of military-embedded journalists as they race against time to reach DC before rebel factions descend upon the White House." 


Nihilism without Cell Service

I remember viewing Apocalypse Now for the first time, looking forward to an action-packed foray into jungle warfare only to be swallowed into the aether at its dreary conclusion; I was adrift with feelings of vacancy and horror. Walking out of Alex Garland’s Civil War, dubiously entertained, I overheard a fellow theater patron exclaim, “That was not what I was expecting.” Her companion echoed the sentiment, “Yeah, it was good, but I’m not sure how I feel about it.” I suspect their experience will encapsulate a wide berth of audience reactions, expecting Civil War to be an action-packed riff on Call-of-Duty, rife with political rhetoric.


Well, this movie is not that.


Civil War is a bleak exploration of a world no one wants to live through. There is action, violence, blood, all of the requisite components of war. An early sequence shows a citizen sprinting toward a crowd holding a giant American flag before setting off a suicide bomb; it is a spectacularly frightening scene. However, something is missing, and this film only works because of that critical ingredient. More on that later. This film has writer/director Alex Garland’s thumbprint all over it. Combing through his earlier work with 28 Days Later, Ex-Machina, and Annihilation, it is clear Garland loves to play with concepts of emptiness, cynicism, and desolation. He has made a good film here, perhaps even a great one that is devoid of parliamentary rhetoric. Instead of being a projection of political bias that some audiences might be looking for, Civil War is an indictment on war itself.


The film follows Kirsten Dunst as Lee, a photojournalist, as she captures the gradual unraveling of the United States through the lens of her camera. She wears the toll of covering the war on her face; she is sardonic, she is tired. The United States has inexplicably been split off into separate factions. The most notable defectors are the Western Forces, composed of California and Texas, which have begun a campaign to descend onto Washington D.C. to usurp control of the country. Lee is joined by her colleague Joel (Wagner Moura) as they leave New York to make it to D.C. Their mission is to interview the President (Nick Offerman in an extremely brief appearance) to get an interview before the Western Forces reach him first. They are accompanied by friendly media rival Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and a young journalist, Jessie (Cailee Spaeny). Henderson’s portrayal of the older Sammy is compelling as he doles out wisdom nuggets. Jessie, who idolizes Lee, is wide-eyed, young, motivated, and excited to join the group. She is a rookie in photojournalism and thirsty for experience. After chatting with Joel, Jessie secures a spot in the press truck to make the trip, much to Lee’s chagrin. 


Civil War is a road movie of sorts (like Apocalypse Now) as these four characters take the long way around western Pennsylvania and hook back through West Virginia due to the dangerous landscape. Philadelphia has become a bloodbath. Virtually every wide shot in this film contains a building or structure destroyed, or at least smoking from the acts of carnage. Dotted along their trip are occasions of quiet contemplation contrasted with harrowing, violent interactions, providing a substantial balance to the tempo of war. These story beats punctuate the team’s secondary goal to document the war in action; these sequences either offer a space for the group (and audience) to catch their breath or literally dodge bullets. In many ways, Civil War is cinematic whiplash. During one stop, Jessie is shaken up so severely that she forgets she is even carrying her camera; she regroups and gets in many photographic reps while shadowing Lee. Lee comes around to Jessie’s company. They bond over cameras, legacies, dresses, and their families who are hiding from the war on their rural farms.


The clever editing work of Jake Roberts inserts the still images the women shoot into the real-time action. This tactic is incorporated smartly, inserting the audience into the eyes of the principal cast, leading to an appropriate, if not painfully teed up, pay-off in the third act. The editing is but one brilliant technical aspect of Civil War. Alex Garland has assembled his team well for this project. This film has some ambitious and exciting shots, full of scope, scale, and colors. Rob Hardy’s vibrant cinematography adds brilliant depth that diverges from the brutal tone of warfare. Heading into the third act, the team traverses a small country road at night beautifully lit by the fallen embers from burning trees. These shots are reminiscent of the work of Kubrick and Tarkovsky, two filmmakers who found beauty in the gravest places. The art and set direction combine elements of practical sets and computer-generated destruction. The soundtrack, which drifts from blues to country, juxtaposes against the horrifying imagery. It’s an ironic application of tone and mood, which is subtly humorous because it works so well. This is complemented by the shattering sound design where bullets and bombs are amplified spectacularly.


The performances of the core four leads are convincing and, sometimes, deeply heartbreaking. Dunst’s Lee plays coy with her emotions, hiding behind her lens to shield her from her camera’s subjects. There is a pivotal moment near the climax where her objectivity shatters; she becomes paralyzed as the weight of her journey takes its toll. An earlier scene foreshadows this beautifully as Lee, while lying in a bathtub, reflects on the awful experiences she’s captured before. While mainly functioning in a support capacity, Henderson shines often as the wiser, older team member. He provides levity laced in sage acuity as he mentors Jessie and counsels Lee. One of Civil War’s most captivating shots involves a grief-stricken Joel screaming till his veins pop. Wagner Moura’s profile will undoubtedly rise after this role. Cailee Spaeny steals her scenes as the youthful and enterprising Jessie. I felt a solid connection to Spaeny’s arc from appearing green and naive to hardened and stoic; my experience as a combat videographer with two Iraq tours allowed me to project myself onto Jessie. Combat zones don’t care who you are; they always find a way to leave their mark. 


Jesse Plemmons shows up to command the film’s most anxious and nerve-wracking scene. Plemmons increases his stock with every role he takes, and for only approximately five minutes of screen time here, he effectively embodies the walking nightmare of a human being. 


Outstanding technical prowess and character performances populate Civil War, but the film’s true strength is what it does not show us. There will be understandable frustration from some audience members expecting answers that Civil War refuses to provide. 


What started the war? How long has this been happening? Who do I agree with? Where is the politics? Why is the Canadian currency valued so highly? Why was the FBI dissolved? Why did the President serve a third term? 

All of these queries band around the real final question. That missing ingredient: who do we root for? Outside of the brisk emergence of the Plemmons character, there are no clear good guy/bad guy designations. Because the reason these groups are fighting is inconsequential. This revelation materializes as uncertainty, fright, and dread. The answers are not clear, and we are left holding the horror in our hands à la Apocalypse Now. However, not addressing these issues is not a cop-out. Garland’s fascination with nihilistic potential is precisely why Civil War works as a case study, not about humanity itself, but humanity’s response to complacent comfort. The heart of this film is not about war or politics but the reduction of the stability and our blind faith in that stability that we as humans, especially Americans, can take for granted. Garland’s gut punch of a film is really good; it is worth one watch, but don’t be surprised if it takes a while to pick yourself up. A24 can happily add another notch to its already impressive catalog. Ambitious films take guts to make; Civil War, like the warring factions it portrays, takes zero prisoners.

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