Civil War (2024, dir. Alex Garland)

by | Apr 10, 2024

Certificate: 15

Running Time: 109 mins

UK Distributor: Entertainment Film Distributors

UK Release Date: 12 April 2024

WHO’S IN CIVIL WAR?

Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, Cailee Spaeny, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Sonoya Mizuno, Nick Offerman, Jefferson White, Juani Feliz, Nelson Lee, Edmund Donovan, Karl Glusman, Jin Ha, Jojo T. Gibbs, Jesse Plemons, Jess Matney

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Alex Garland (director, writer), Gregory Goodman, Andrew Macdonald and Allon Reich (producers), Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury (composers), Rob Hardy (cinematographer), Jake Roberts (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A group of journalists travel across America as it descends into a modern civil war…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON CIVIL WAR?

The irony about writer-director Alex Garland’s Civil War is that it’s already caused a severe, even combative, divide among American audiences. On one side, you have people who believe it to be nothing more than fear-mongering propaganda about what could happen if a certain candidate wins the upcoming US election. On the other, some view it as a cautionary tale that doesn’t go far enough in showing how bad things might get if things go a certain way this November.

Neither side, incidentally, seems to recognise that Garland’s film is not about choosing sides. In fact, the perspective it chooses to convey its disturbing and often chilling what-if scenario is one whose job isn’t to lean one way or the other, but simply document the truth about what’s happening. It lends a fresh and unbiased lens to a film that is, no matter what side of the argument you fall on, equally tough and captivating to watch.

The film takes place during a rather advanced stage of a modern-day American civil war, one that has seen the US government – as fronted by Nick Offerman’s three-term president – dish out a number of hostile attacks against the “Western Forces” of Texas and California, as well as the “Florida Alliance” among other enemies of the state. During all of this, a group of photojournalists – including hardened war photographer Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst), her colleague Joel (Wagner Moura) and seasoned veteran Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) – begin a journey to the battle-ridden capital of Washington D.C. to capture what could be the final moments of the war itself. They are also joined by Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), an aspiring young photographer who idolises Lee and her work, and who manages to talk her way into joining her hero on an increasingly dangerous trek across the war-torn East Coast of America.

Garland’s film is not especially heavy on details, especially the ones concerning how exactly this whole civil war kicked off, how long it’s been going on for, which side is the quote-unquote “right one” in this situation, and so on. None of it is relevant in this narrative; the fact is that it’s happened, and we’re witnessing what’s become of America because of it. The filmmaker keeps a steady distance from the politics of it all, for which some will accuse him of being too centrist about a seemingly black-and-white scenario, but Garland’s point seems to be that in this particular civil war, there is no side that is ultimately good or bad.

Most of the people that the main characters encounter on their harrowing road trip are deadly, gun-toting militants, so consumed with the idea that what they’re fighting for is just and noble that they’ll gladly dish out violence to anyone they decide to target, regardless of whether or not they’re fighting for the same reasons. That, ultimately, is what Garland is trying to get across here: war has the power to turn us all into monsters, and it is how we wrestle with that power that determines how much of our humanity remains afterward.

So much of that is captured – often in the photographic sense – by our scrappy central band of journalists who, in a bid to retain journalistic integrity, actively avoid making their own judgement, and just letting the images they take do the talking. It’s a rather clever way of bringing the audience into this nationwide scenario, for instead of immediately telling them which people to root for, Civil War simply drops them into the same indifferent mindset as the likes of Kirsten Dunst’s Lee, whose own harrowing experiences photographing everything from wounded soldiers to people being set on fire have removed her emotional attachment.

Dunst is excellent in the film, as someone who doesn’t even bat an eye when coming across bloodied civilians being strung up like animal carcasses, but crucially her monotonous approach never comes across as sociopathic or even inhuman, thanks to the actor’s ability to draw out her character’s vulnerable side at just the right moments. All the while, you feel her inner struggle to maintain her journalistic duty by not taking any sides in the conflict, which in a stroke of genius by Garland is kept internalised until the very last, sure-to-be-divisive moments in the film (which, for all their build-up, still feel somewhat rushed).

More so than in Ex Machina, Annihilation and even Men, director Garland creates a deeply disturbing atmosphere wherein nobody, whether they’re young or old, is ever considered safe. As the journalists go from one horrifying experience to the next – including a raid conducted by armed civilians in Hawaiian shirts, a sniper shoot-out set in a Christmas-themed roadside attraction, and an exceptionally tense sequence involving Jesse Plemons as a murderous xenophobe – there is always an uncomfortable feeling that at least one of them is going to be permanently scarred, be it physical or emotional. Rob Hardy’s static cinematography and the lack of a consistent musical score (save for some ironic needle-drops during moments of brutal violence) both add to the levels of discomfort, as does some choice editing and sound design that equally push the conflict into the literal background, but nonetheless keeps that severe level of suspense front and centre at all times.

Again, it is crucial that Civil War maintains its level-headed approach, one that’s free of political statements that say the obvious. Those hoping for such a statement from this film will not find one here, for it’s all about viewing this fictional – but no less plausible – conflict from an outsider’s perspective, which in its own way says more than a straightforward declaration ever could.

It’s not always subtle, and in some cases it’s even frustrating with some of its narrative decisions, but nothing can deny its uncanny ability to leave you horrified by how war, civil or otherwise, can be truly monstrous from any humanist angle.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Civil War is a deeply disturbing thriller from writer-director Alex Garland that admirably adopts a humanist perspective instead of choosing any sides, instead depicting through its photojournalist protagonists the horrifying reality that war makes monsters out of us all.

Four of of five stars

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