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Civil War (2024)

By not being as political as the trailer teased, Civil War ends up being less incendiary but more relentlessly brutal than expected.
Our Rating

Genre(s): Action, War

Director: Alex Garland

Actors: Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Cailee Spaeny

Year: 2024

MPAA Rating: R

Country: USA / UK

The story arc of Civil War is super-simple: A carload of war journalists (led by a weary, haunted Kirsten Dunst) needs to get from point A to point B so they can interview the leader of one side of the conflict before the opposing side gets to him first (when he’ll most likely be assassinated). But this civil war happens to be in the modern United States, in a sort of alternative timeline to present day, and the journalists are driving across the war-torn American countryside to get the the President in Washington, DC before the city is captured.

Not much background is given on how the conflict started (the film almost completely skirts around the specific political differences, or what caused the country to splinter), just to say that there is a Western Front consisting of an alliance between powerful California and Texas (flying the US flag with two stars), fighting against the “rest” of the fractured United States. As photojournalist Lee Miller (Dunst) and her colleagues drive past burnt out cars and destroyed towns to get to DC, the viewer is forced to try to piece together any details about the war through the eyes of the journalists—including amiable yet determined Joel (Wagner Moura); elder, seen-it-all Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson); and eager young photographer Jessie (Calilee Spaeny). The thing is, they are all so messed up with trauma that there’s not much to talk about… except for acknowledging that much of the country has turned a blind eye to the war. They are determined to document, document, document to ensure that the rest of the world bears witness to the atrocities.

I couldn’t help but think of dystopian shows like The Walking Dead or The Last of Us as their SUV raced along the lush, forested countryside (thanks, Georgia!). But instead of undead walkers, the group encounters equally sinister soldiers or suspiciously empty towns. When they come across a trigger-happy solider (in a live-wire performance by Jesse Plemons) filling a mass grave, the soldier’s calm demeanor as he loosely cradles his machine gun is more nerve-wracking than any screaming confrontation. In another encounter, a couple of sharpshooters crouch hidden in a field, trading volleys with a sniper hunkered in a countryside mansion. The journalists ask the sharpshooters which side they are on. They just scoff in response; they are shooting because they are being shot at.

By portraying a war through the eyes of the (ideally) impartial press, writer/director Alex Garland has intentionally created a world where it is impossible to choose sides. By stripping out the politics, the war as portrayed becomes even more nebulous—in its most raw form, it’s neighbor fighting against neighbor, and everyone loses. Without this meaning, it all becomes violence for violence’s sake, nauseating and overwhelming. That may be the unsettling point to the movie, but by having the film take place in the United States is a missed opportunity: its impartial viewpoint mutes what could have been a very powerful message about the looming path of this country’s own fractured discourse.

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