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Civil War

Directed by Alex Garland
Produced by Gregory Goodman, Andrew Macdonald, and Allon Reich
Written by Alex Garland
With: Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, Cailee Spaeny, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Sonoya Mizuno, Nick Offerman, Jefferson White, Nelson Lee, Evan Lai, Stephen Henderson, Vince Pisani, Justin James Boykin, Nick Offerman, and Jesse Plemons
Cinematography: Rob Hardy
Editing: Jake Roberts
Music: Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury
Runtime: 109 min
Release Date: 12 April 2024
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1
Color: Color

Proving that his laughable 2022 attempt to make a statement about cultural issues, Men, was not some pandemic-related fluke, Alex Garland seems to have fully reversed the positive direction of his directing career (the solid Ex Machina and the stunning Annihilation) and reverted back to the type of shallow, logically faulty storytelling dressed up as something profound on which he made his name as a screenwriter (28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go). His latest, Civil War, is set in a dystopian near-future in which a domestic hot war has erupted between allied secessionist movements and an authoritarian United States government headed by a president in his third term. (This dictatorial prez is played by Nick Offerman, making it difficult to take this film seriously from minute one).

Kirsten Dunst plays a tough, emotionally callused combat photographer named Lee. Teamed up with a hot-shot war correspondent (Wagner Moura) and her mentor, an aging journalist from the failing New York Times (Stephen McKinley Henderson), Lee attempts to travel from the war zone of New York City to the front lines of Washington, DC before the president is executed. When we meet Lee, she saves an aspiring photojournalist named Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) from a suicide bomb. Jessie knows who Lee is; in fact, she idolizes her and wants to join in the adventure. Lee reluctantly accepts the tagalong, and they set off on a dangerous and somber road trip. Jessie is a Gen-Z retro lenswoman who shoots with her grandpa's Nikon 35mm camera and carries the chemicals and gear needed to develop her negatives herself in between firefights.

This movie is supposed to act as a warning or preview of what might happen if and when US democracy reaches the breaking point, but it's about as effective at that as Cloverfield is in seriously preparing us for an eventual giant monster attack. Garlen forgoes any exposition as to how his civil war works. We learn that Texas and California started the conflict by succeeding from the union, but no explanation is given as to just how such an unlikely military alliance would work. I mean, this is supposed to be the near future, and actual movements like Antifa are referenced along with fictional ones like the Florida Alliance, so how do these ideologically opposed state governments team up at a time when the current House leadership can barely elect a Speaker?

Garlen wants to sidestep these questions and all logic issues by injecting almost no actual politics, religion, or racial ideology that would signal the viewer which side he comes down on. If one were cynical, they'd say he just wants to draw the biggest commercial audience. If one wants to give him the artistic benefit of the doubt, we'd say he wants the audience to feel as lost and clueless about how things got started as if we were dropped into the type of foreign war Americans often instigate but very few of us see up close. Both rationales are flawed because the main characters in this story are not typical citizens; they're seasoned war correspondents. No one knows more about the causes, the ins and outs, and the history of current wars than war journalists. They are literally the best type of characters to convey subtle exposition because talking about the situations they come across and interviewing the participants is what they do all the time.

Garlen has the Dunst character make an exegetical statement about how it's not the job of journalists to get involved in the morality of the conflicts they cover. They get the story so others can make policy. That might be fine and noble, and the public stance of editors and publishers, but it’s not how journalists talk to each other. In all the excellent forty-year-old movies Garlen borrows heavily from that center on war correspondents for whom the action is the juice—Peter Weir's The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), Roland Joffé’s The Killing Fields (1984), Oliver Stone's Salvador (1986)—didn't he notice all the scenes where these folks talk to each other, joke cynically with each other, and debate with each other about what's going on? Even Peter Farrelly’s The Greatest Beer Run Ever (2022) understands this. In one unforgivable scene, our three protagonists happen upon a town that is trying to carry on normalcy as if there isn't a war raging all around. Rather than stoke their journalistic curiosity, our heroes meet this with a kind of disbelief and contempt. They don't ask questions; they just judge. Wait, I thought journalists weren't supposed to have an opinion about anything? Maybe we can forgive them, as they're on a quest to be the only members of the press to get the final interview and photos of the president, who is hiding up in the White House, not in some undisclosed location, waiting for the Western Forces to come in a kill him. This movie would have us believe not only that that scenario is credible, or even possible, but that only one small group of journalists would be trying to get there to cover this momentous event.

The film does work along the lines of envisioning how the kind of destructive, well-funded, collateral-damage-inducing military campaigns the US frequently wages in faraway places would look like if one played out on our home turf. But without affixing these battle scenes to any logical narrative backstory or credible political motivation, it feels no more connected to reality than War of the Worlds or World War Z. In fact, it's far less relatable than either of those sci-fi pictures because they both tap into far more tangible feelings and specific fears we have about our society. The movie Civil War recalls most is Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006), a far more effective dystopian action thriller made at a similar level with some very similar set pieces, including one that takes place in a car. The best near-future "what if" pictures are able to convey ideas about how the society they present got the way it is in their story without overtly spelling things out.

The cast here is uniformly fine, but they leave little impression because they are playing one-dimensional types. Movies like this often use their visceral intensity as an excuse for not fleshing characters out. But, again, look at Children of Men to see how multi-layered characters can be created in films of this ilk, even when these characters have little screen time that mostly takes place during scenes of intense fighting or fleeing. Civil War is a movie that mostly takes place during the downtimes between battles, so it's not like there isn't plenty of opportunity to explore these individuals. Garlen does this via on-the-nose dialogue scenes where the characters point out stuff about each other that we can easily see for ourselves rather than uncover unexpected details that would make these people feel less generic and the situation they find themselves in less preposterous.

The film's best sequence features an uncredited Jesse Plemons as a rouge soldier (or many a guy pretending to be one) who cares little about the fact that our protagonists are members of the press. One thing this movie gets right is how quick to shoot many of these militia guys would be if a scenario like the one this film presents were to come about. There would not be a lot of Hollywood movie-style talking that provieds the heroes with ample time to figure out escape plans. The duration of the excellent sequence with Plemons feels just about right, as do other scenes depicting interactions with loose-cannon guys with guns. Too bad the rest of the characters behave in ways that seem less and less believable as the film goes on, building to a climax so ridiculous it lands with the opposite effect from what it's going for. Garland has never been able to end a story well, though both Ex Machina and Annihilation hinted that perhaps he was overcoming this most unforgivable flaw in a screenwriter. Civil War is right up there with 28 Days Later in terms of a third act that just sinks whatever was working about the rest of the movie. All three of our leads get a climactic moment in the film where they take actions that only characters in a movie would take, distancing us even further from any type of imagined reality we've been supposed to feel all along the journey they take. The final scene is meant to be some kind of profound statement, but it undermines any and all credibility our heroic journalists may have had.

Twitter Capsule:

Alex Garland forgoes narrative logic and character motivation, injecting almost no politics, religion, or racial ideology into his dystopian near-future tale about journalists covering a domestic hot war between indeterminable factions.