Civil War

Directed By Alex Garland

Starring – Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, Cailee Spaeny

The Plot – A journey across a dystopian future America, following a team of military-embedded journalists as they race against time to reach DC before rebel factions descend upon the White House.

Rated R for strong violent content, bloody/disturbing images, and adult language throughout

Civil War | Official Trailer HD | A24 (youtube.com)

POSITIVES

Films featuring a post-apocalyptic backdrop are often set so far in the future or given such exaggerated emphasis that they seem to lack believability in the eyes of the audience, but Garland conjures a doomsday scenario that hits very close to home, as a result of our own sociological division, in turn crafting a vulnerable country crumbling at the seams that feels every bit gripping with anticipatory tension as it is haunting by the things we fear more with each passing day. Garland bravely and wisely decides to stay apolitical, keeping himself from dividing his own audience in half by refraining from passing guilt, and instead choosing to craft the narrative around a group of media journalists, whose sole job is to present an unflinching look at reality. This is brilliant for a lot of ways, but mostly because the media have become the outlet for such division in this country that it kind of just reminds the audience what their purpose was for, long before politics became a way of creating such internal disconnect, and as a result we’re presented mostly ambiguous protagonists who can only be judged by their commitment to such a daunting and dangerous craft that only feels valued when we’re given this curtain-pulling reality to truly appreciate them. Garland firmly directs the hell out of this picture, combining paralyzing-yet-beautiful photography with a jovial music score that atmospherically enriches the disturbing factor to much of what we’re interpreting, all the while articulating an immersive element to on-the-ground conflict that demands to be experienced in the most technologically advanced auditorium that money can buy. This is due to a boldness in sound design that blankets the devastating and echoing impacts like they’re happening over our shoulder, with gunfire and explosions that craft a bass in heft that I’ve rarely ever experienced in cinema, but saved sporadically so that the devastation never withers on impact, nor overstays its welcome in the depths of its storytelling. On that factor, the script is blessed with meaningful dialogue that feels natural in the evolutions of its conversations, especially of those between Dunst’s Lee and Cailee Spaeny’s Jessie, who essentially feels like the eyes and ears of the audience, as she receives a crash course in the unforgiving visuals of the world that will forever shatter her fragility. Because we learn so little about the contextual framing of the conflict and world-building surrounding the film, the dialogue is used to supplant small but meaningful pieces in building a general outline along the way, in both the characters and the conflict, but without the heavy-handed, on-the-nose emphasis that intentionally hammers home its intentions, and instead opting for a lived-in brand of wistful experience that comes from this team living for so long inside of a place that they could’ve never imagined in all of their years of covering national events. Like the objective for journalists, those depicted in the film responsibly tell the story with unbiased objectivity, and while that kind of ambiguous framing might alienate certain audiences looking for an angle into the kind of backgrounds that each of them partook in, before the world went to Hell, I found it therapeutically refreshing, especially with how their dreaded dispositions never overtakes the meaning or magnitude of the story that they’re continuously covering. On top of it all, this is a film that is acted exceptionally, but primarily from the aforementioned duo of leading ladies in Dunst and Spaeny, who knock it out of the park with parallel arcs and evolutions that supplant each with a variety of complex emotions to paint in the foreground of what’s transpiring in the background. When the film begins, Dunst’s Lee is stoic as the hardened veteran, and Spaeny’s Jessie is plagued by terror of being a rookie fresh out of Missouri. But as the film persists, we see the latter mature with eager ambition and relentless drive that really make her feel a thousand years grown from where she started, and the former finds herself psychologically unraveling as a result of giving into those relationships between her and her collegues that only days prior she would’ve never concerned herself with. As expected, Spaeny plays terror as good as anyone going in the game today, and Dunst’s resiliency is often the pressure that forms the diamond in many urgently crafted sequences, affording each of them a tremendously irreplacable value to the film that never stops appraising their efforts. Lastly, while the film is a bit of a slowburn, I found the pacing to feel seamless in the depths of the execution, especially in experiencing a world that might very well be our next tragic step in cultural evolution. As previously mentioned, Garland doesn’t oversaturate the experience with action sequences, but rather vital interactions among what little left that can capably be described as a humanity, and as a result those moments of action hit even harder because we’ve allowed the stakes that are hanging in the balance to be firmly defined with a false sense of security that should never be taken for granted in the group covering so many pockets of the chess game being played in ivory towers.

NEGATIVES

While I firmly comprehend the desire for Garland to remain apolitical in a film that could easily be used as one side of the political coin to cast blame towards the other, I do wish the film cemented more of a contextual backdrop to the film’s introductory minutes, especially in us being shown and told so many things that we can’t properly place a cause towards. This obviously creates an underscoring in the scale of the division depicted, but beyond that creates moments like those of California and Texas, two states that politically couldn’t be any different, forming an alliance against the rest of the country, with little to no definition for how this came to be in the first place. This definitely isn’t the only example throughout the film, as several beats of exposition don’t line up as seamlessly towards our own world, which underscores the aforementioned believability factor that Garland taps so fearlessly on, giving us a surface level idea that feels comfortable with that shallowness without diving deeper, and it just makes me wish that this was a series instead of a 104 minute engagement, as it would’ve outlined a greater sense of lived-in history to the perplexity of a world gone mad. In addition to this, I occasionally found some of the editing to be a bit jarring, especially in moments of development that spring quite literally out of nowhere, and contradict everything that we’ve been told in exposition to that point. One such example pertains to a third act resolution that feels like a monumental bombshell being dropped on the characters and the audience, but with little to no reasoning for why this has happened all of a sudden, and it leads to the lone issue with making the scope to your story so small in following a group of journalists, instead of outlining the bigger picture of the world that is quite literally hanging in the balance of this power struggle. Finally, the ending fell a bit into disappointing territory, especially with the abrupt and anticlimatic resolution that only begins a new field of questions to where it leaves the rest of the world. Considering the entirety of the film builds towards this inevitable interview of confrontation with Nick Offerman’s nameless president, the out-of-nowhere developments of the third act unfortunately take focus and feel like a bait and switch from everything that we were promised, and in terms of a satisfying pay-off that concludes the film on the highest altitudes to its emotional roller-coaster, makes the movie feel like it ran out of film or budget, especially with an ending that didn’t land as bittersweet as Garland wanted it to.

OVERALL
“Civil War” is every bit the uncomfortable doomsday scenario that our country feels like it is currently on chapter one of, but not quite the extensive delve that was expected in being helmed by one of cinema’s best world-builders. Despite its flaws, the film packs a bluntly devastating punch on the death of traditional Americana, all the while enacting a message of urgency for change in a divided world that gives us an unsettling view of our inevitable future.

My Grade: 7/10 or B

3 thoughts on “Civil War

  1. I just saw this film and I feel I’m a harsher critic mainly because of the intersectional view in which I have on America lol. To this was soooo unrealistic. The indiscriminate killing seemed a bit unrealistic as well. For me, if there was a civil war in America, there would be far more acts against humanity than simply killing and it didn’t factor in gender inequities, race inequities to name a few. I also kept finding myself asking, how did we get here? And how does Cali and Texas have THAT much fire power like drones don’t exist. Also why would the president stay in DC and what about the VP and so on? Too many questions. And that little girl pissed me off. Got me thinking she acted how she acted at the end on purpose. Haha. So for me, it was below a C grade. But the cinematography was great.

  2. Left the theater feeling so weird! I agree with you completely that the acting in this was superb and the sound design was extraordinary. But the lack of exposition might have left me searching for more. A premise like this could definitely improperly spark public outrage but it would also keep us as a country accountable for what could be just around the corner. SUCH devastating imagery too. That scene with Jesse Clemons was truly terrifying. This may require more watches to see if the devil is in the details and I just was too focused on the surface level. Journalism is risky and should be respected instead of scoffed at immediately. Great review! I loved how you painted your experience! Excellent points made!

  3. I’m still on the fence on this one. Good idea, but I feel like the election year timing is either a great or awful choice..

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