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  • Nate Adams

'Civil War' review: Alex Garland’s riveting exploration of a divided America

Courtesy of A24


When writer-director Alex Garland’s “Civil War” was announced, it caused a little bit of an uproar. On one hand, it’s a massive gamble to drop this movie into theaters during a contentious election year, let alone one where, depending on who you ask, democracy may very well be on the line. But on the other, and taken for what it’s actually presenting versus what a viewer’s interpretation could be, “Civil War” isn’t so much trying to take a political stance (as shocking as that is to hear), rather, it’s presenting a portrait of what a dystopian and heavily divided United States of America could look like under the worst-case scenarios. 

Anyone can walk in with their own preconceived notions of what they want this movie to be, and there’s no doubt it will ruffle some feathers, especially during a wild third act set around an important national landmark, but “Civil War” isn’t interested in taking sides, it just wants to tell a story, and that story happens to revolve around a very divided country (which, in case you have been living under a rock, we already are). Taken on those terms, it’s a sweeping, visual epic that draws comparison to “Apocalypse Now” and plays like a documentary.


The genius of “Civil War,” which see’s Garland depart from his usual genre-bending films ala “Annihilation” or “Men,” is the framing of the story. It’s told from the perspective of photojournalists traveling cross-country to document the chaos and perhaps snag an exclusive interview with the current sitting president (played by Nick Offerman). Led by Kirsten Dunst’s Lee Smith, the group of journalists are professional and stay out of the way. They don’t care about the “why’s.” They capture fleeting moments in time. They don’t backtrack. They don’t get attached. They just report it as they see it. This might irk some folks who are eager for Garland to choose a side, and there are little breadcrumbs laid throughout the film that might hint as to how the war started, but the simplicity is that it tries staying neutral. As hard as they may sound.


One of the only concrete things we do learn about this crisis is that Texas and California have both seceded and banned together (calling themselves “the Western Forces”) against a “fascist” administration that’s currently on its third term. It might sound like the makings of a contrived post-apocalyptic war thriller, but the authenticity Garland brings to the film, elevates it beyond that classification. It helps indie studio A24 has shelled out its most expensive budget to date ($50 million) and allotted a limited IMAX run to give the film the scope and scale it deserves (the sound design in the IMAX auditorium is outstanding).


Oddly enough, “Civil War” is more a love letter to journalism rather than an exploitation of political violence. The crew we follow, driving a vehicle that says “Press” on it, while also wearing bullet proof vests, is rounded out by loose cannon reporter Joel (Wagner Moura), a veteran political journalist (played by the always great Stephen McKinley Henderson) and aspiring youngster Jessie (Cailee Spaeny, who between this, “Priscilla” and the forthcoming “Alien” sequel is having a moment). Collectively, they represent the pillars of experience and that lends itself to the film, because it allows Jessie, who is an admirer of Lee, to learn the ropes, and ask important questions in an organic sense that doesn’t drag the movie with mindless exposition. Something Garland doesn’t have on his mind, which is evident by a taut standoff with a sniper, where Joel asks a pair of military operatives what’s going on and their response is simple: “There’s a guy in there trying to kill us and we’re trying to kill him.” 

In another sequence, the crew see’s the harsher sides of what the country has become when they are interrogated by a machine gun wielding Jesse Plemons (who goes uncredited) asking “What kind of American are you?” in what is a pulse pounding scene. The outcome will leave with you a visceral image that won’t easily be shaken. It doesn’t matter what side of the political spectrum this dude falls on and, quite frankly, it’s a question that gets asked all too much in today’s world. Sometimes with even more sinister subtext.  


This all leads into a final stretch that is harrowing and more jaw-dropping than anything most modern blockbusters would even dare to attempt. I won’t go into too many details, but it does involve a siege in our nation’s capital (that makes January 6th look like a walk in the park) and it’s captured with a raw, unfiltered lens of objective observers who just happened to be in the right place at the right time. 

For anyone who has seen Garland’s previous works, they understand the filmmaker isn’t afraid of pushing buttons and pulling ambiguous motifs from his storytelling (remember that crazy ending from “Annihilation?”). And in not providing a reason for the ongoing conflict, it does leave us feeling a bit empty on what the main takeaway should be, but his vision of what a modern-day civil unrest could look like is one that still leaves a haunting impact.


Grade: A- 


CIVIL WAR opens in theaters Friday, April 12th.


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