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“Civil War” Delivers Dark Thrills

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | April 10th, 2024

Civil War (Alex Garland, 2024) 3½ out of 5 stars

As usual for an Alex Garland film, there are ideas aplenty in Civil War, and many finely wrought cinematic sequences. Imagination is this director’s strong suit, along with an eye for complexity of character. Also the norm in a Garland (Annihilation) work, not everything quite holds together, though one thing is without a doubt sure: tension and adrenaline both run high and it’s hard to look away. It’s a gripping narrative, through and through.

We begin with the president of these not-so-United States (Nick Offerman, Dumb Money), delivering what sounds like a victory speech. A victory over whom? The “Western Forces,” an alliance between California and Texas, with Florida apparently providing additional assistance from the south. The why and the how of this civil war into which we have been dropped in medias res are never fully explored, since it is the ongoing misery of both combat and internecine political strife that interests Garland, rather than the root causes of the conflict.

Nick Offerman in CIVIL WAR. Credit: Murray Close ©A24

Nevertheless, the director offers hints here and there of what has led to this, gathered as we go. Garland also leans heavily on the realities of our day, where we need no great insight to conjure up reasons for division. Still, we eventually learn that the president disbanded the FBI upon election and also see examples of jingoistic (and possibly racist) violence; these facts allow us to come to our own conclusions about the source of military action.

The plot follows a group of journalists on their way from New York to the front lines of Charlottesville, in Virginia, with plans to eventually make it to Washington, DC, to interview the president. Plot spoiler: his opening speech is all bombast, and his reign is in danger of ending soon. It doesn’t look good for the man, and our protagonists desperately want to get to him before he is overthrown and/or killed so they can get the scoop.

l-r: Cailee Spaeny and Kirsten Dunst in CIVIL WAR ©A24

Kirsten Dunst (The Power of the Dog) stars as Lee, a veteran photojournalist who has seen it all, with the ravages of time and trauma written in every weary line of her face. She is accompanied by longtime colleague Joel (Wagner Moura, Sergio), a reporter who, at least initially, bears his scars with less seriousness, masking wounds with genial joviality (and drink). Joining these two is the much older Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson, Beau Is Afraid), who wants one last shot at getting a good story, and—much to Lee’s dismay—the much younger Jessie (Cailee Spaeny, Priscilla), who hopes to learn from the older woman, one of her idols, about the ins and outs of the profession.

Kirsten Dunst in CIVIL WAR ©A24

Lee fears for Jessie’s physical safety, for sure, but even more for her loss of innocence, knowing what the years of documenting atrocities around the world have done to her. Garland frequently cuts away from the horrors of the present to Lee’s graphically vivid memories of the past. At one point she laments that none of her efforts to make public the savagery of war seem to have had any effect, since here we are yet again. And yet she can’t stop photographing, and helps guide Jessie in her quest for more experience, despite her own misgivings.

Wagner Moura in CIVIL WAR ©A24

Indeed, beyond this dark fantasy of what a violent falling-out between states might look like in America, Garland focuses almost as equally on the role of the media, for better and for worse. Though it might seem strange and/or naïve that a van emblazoned with the word “press” might afford any protection in our current universe (which it only sometimes does on this journey), Garland wants to foreground the way that efforts to show the news often inadvertently shape how the news is seen. That’s hardly a new concept—Marshall McLuhan wrote about it in the 1960s—but the treatment of it in Civil War proves mostly engrossing. There’s even a funny moment at the end where the expected brutal resolution is briefly put on hold so Joel can get a quote.

By the time the movie concludes, we—like the characters—have been through the wringer. There’s a tragic killing in a final sequence that I wish came as more of a surprise, but even if it has long been set up via massive foreshadowing, it still hurts a bit. And though we might wish that the important themes undergirding the many impressive action pieces were more original, the emotional impact of the big scenes nonetheless keenly resonates. Civil War may not offer the deepest of thoughts, but it remains a twisted thrill ride through one potential version of the nightmare on today’s doorstep.

Stephen McKinley Henderson in CIVIL WAR. Credit: Murray Close ©A24

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

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