REVIEW – ‘Civil War’ is one of the most urgent, intense, and memorable films of the year

Marketing films is a tricky business. Reveal too much and you risk audiences staying home after feeling like they’ve seen the entire movie in its trailer. Reveal too little and you might fail to whet the appetite of potential viewers entirely. Then there’s something like Civil War; a film with trailers that suggest a highly political, super divisive, and action-packed epic that’s really just a thinly veiled allegory/warning for America’s impending future. In reality, this film is somehow simultaneously all these things and none of them. Whether that makes it bold or cowardly will be up to you to decide.

Writer/director Alex Garland crafts several intensely visceral and staggeringly tense action sequences in what is the closest A24 has come to a mainstream action blockbuster. While Garland wisely refuses to choose a side, it’s hard not to draw parallels to the current deeply divided state of the ironically named United States of America. However, when all is said and done, Civil War is a surprisingly apolitical film that’s ultimately more of a compelling portrait of journalists and the dangerous pursuit of a story amid deadly conflict.

Set at some point in the not-too-distant future, we’re presented with an America in the advanced stages of a second civil war. California and Texas have seceded to form the “Western Forces.” Florida has assembled its own government known as the “Florida Alliance.” Several states in the northeast are referring to themselves as the “New People’s Army.” And, despite the lies the President (Nick Offerman) is spouting on national television, the Western Forces are on the brink of victory as they edge closer to claiming Washington D.C.

In New York City, renowned war photographer Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst) and her journalist partner Joel (Wagner Moura) have received a tip regarding the Western Forces’ intent to invade the capital and remove the President from power. Intent on interviewing him before that occurs, Lee and Joel head off on a perilous road trip with veteran New York Times writer Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and timid aspiring photographer Jessie (Cailee Spaeny).

It’s a curious choice to present a “war movie” that’s not inherently concerned with the finer details of the war itself. While background details and throwaway lines of dialogue offer glimpses of information, Garland is purposely vague in exploring just how America crumbled to this point of such division. By presenting a situation where two politically polar opposite states like California and Texas have somehow united (something entirely unfathomable in 2024), Garland is clearly not interested in crafting a film that’s either left or right-leaning. In this day and age, that’s decidedly refreshing.

Some will call the film’s determination to remain apolitical entirely clever and offering something palatable to all audiences. Others may deem it spineless, especially those expecting to see their personal beliefs echoed in a piece of cinema, particularly during a year dominated by discussion of the upcoming presidential election. But aggravating one political party over another is not Garland’s intent. He’s far more interested in presenting a damning indictment of the utter futility of war; no matter which side of the aisle started it. It’s a startling depiction of what can occur when democracy fails, chaos reigns, and violence permeates a once-peaceful nation.

That’s presented in several beautifully crafted (Rob Hardy‘s cinematography is quietly stunning) but utterly shocking scenes involving American-on-American warfare that echo the conflict on which the nation was founded over 150 years ago. History has a funny way of repeating itself, but, naturally, it’s far more brutal this time with the advent of machine guns, tanks, and helicopters. Our quartet of journalists are thrust into the centre of staggeringly tense sequences that will legitimately have you holding your breath, particularly one involving a terrifying run-in with a sadistic militiaman (an uncredited and intensely unnerving Jesse Plemons). War is always hell, but there’s something far more discerning about seeing it play out in modern-day on American soil.

In her first major leading role in almost a decade, Dunst is phenomenal as the hardened photographer whose years of capturing shocking images of warfare have caused her to lose her humanity. Her understandably jaded persona is entirely juxtaposed by that of Spaeny’s Jessie, who idolises Lee and clings to her side to learn everything she can about the business. But the naive, youthful light in Jessie’s eyes will diminish as she’s forced to confront the true horrors of war and the realisation of what it costs to be on the frontline. Watching the terrifically talented Spaeny capture this tragic evolution is as impressive as it is heartbreaking.

It’s clear Garland wants this film to ultimately stand as a compelling love letter to journalists, particularly those who put their lives on the line to capture a story in the midst of deadly conflict. At the heart of this story is their steadfast determination to accurately and intimately cover deadly events most individuals would rightly run from. Yes, there’s an element in their true motivations of being the first to scoop their colleagues and capture the glory of that elusive one-of-a-kind photo or interview. But the prizes come later. In the here and now, it’s about being the only ones brave (or foolish) enough to accurately record history before it’s twisted out of shape.

Civil War is an uncomfortable film. Even without the inescapable similarities to a road America may or may not be currently travelling, everything Garland offers is so grounded in realism, making it all the more distressing. We’re accustomed to seeing America being destroyed by aliens and freak weather events in fantastical blockbusters. Seeing it fall at the hands of its own citizens is something unique, unsettling, and undeniably powerful. Whether the events of Garland’s work serve as a warning of a future yet to be remains unclear. For now, he’s delivered one of the most urgent, intense, and memorable films of the year.

Distributor: Roadshow
Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, Cailee Spaeny, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Sonoya Mizuno, Nick Offerman
Director: Alex Garland
Producers: Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich, Gregory Goodman
Screenplay: Alex Garland
Cinematography: Rob Hardy
Production Design: Caty Maxey
Costume Design: Meghan Kasperlik
Editor: Jake Roberts
Music: Ben Salisbury, Geoff Barrow

Running Time: 109 minutes
Release Date: 11th April 2024 (Australia)

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