film / tv / substack / social media / lists / web / celeb / pajiba love / misc / about / cbr
film / tv / substack / web / celeb


Review: Alex Garland's 'Civil War' Is A Scary Minefield of Apolitical Provocations

By Jason Adams | Film | April 12, 2024 |

By Jason Adams | Film | April 12, 2024 |


“Cathartic” was not the premiere word I expected to find dancing on my lips as I walked out of Alex Garland’s Civil War. Not after its trailer promised a tense socio-political nightmare ripped straight from the headlines. Or from the possible headlines, anyway—an imagined worst version of the future we’re all (or the sane among us anyway) tossing and turning over at night. One where a fascist president refuses to leave the White House and so tears the country apart instead, all for his ego’s sake. Sound familiar? Garland & Co are sure counting on it.

Or at least vaguely so, since the film steadfastly refuses to pinpoint its political particulars. Clustered info-dumps pop up here and there to help us get the broadest inkling of what happened to divide these once united United States. Most especially in its opening scene as said President (Nick Offerman) practices the blowhard speech he’s about to give from the West Wing, wherein he’s promising to defeat all enemy combatants. A heap which apparently includes the joint rebels from a united Texas and California??? Sure, okay. Those states both, like, have deserts. So why wouldn’t Texas and California team up? (I can think of ten billion reasons, but let’s just go with it.)

Just going with it is as good an impulse as any as far as Civil War is concerned—and the film makes it easy enough, since Garland and his cast and crew are all doing top notch work technical work to ease us into this uneasy alternate present. The man behind the script from 28 Days Later (not to mention Sunshine, Ex Machina, and Annihilation, the latter two which like Civil War he also directed) knows a little bit about ratcheting up apocalyptic tensions. 28 Days Later seems to me the most precise reference point here—visually the America in Civil War looks a lot like the England that Danny Boyle put on-screen in that iconic 2002 zombie movie. Just with trigger-happy civilians now our stand-ins for the walking (excuse me, running) dead (excuse me, infected).

And those are Civil War’s most arresting moments by miles—it’s a good idea to see this in IMAX if you can because the immersion that big screen offers is taken for its fullest advantage, with terrifying wide shots showing the Heartland by way of a battered Kabul. Night-time skies once lit by the soothing yellows of road-stop Waffle House signs now flicker with machine gun and missile fire. And just you wait til you see what they do to ol’ Honest Abe’s monument sitting in the cradle of our capitol.

Immersion is exactly the word—not quite embedded, although that one comes up eventually. No we’re in the hands of mavericks, working mainly from outside the system—a ragtag team of war journalists brushing the deadness from behind their eyes so they can see, and more importantly capture, the fresh death and horrors beyond their lenses as they document it for… well that’s not exactly clear. Posterity one supposes. Or perhaps they work for foreign outlets. There doesn’t seem to be much of a functioning American Media System peeking out from under the rubble anyway (we’re told that the press are shot on sight in the general D.C. vicinity).

Kirsten Dunst, ever great, plays a famous war photographer named Lee—and yes just like the actual famous war photographer Lee Miller, who comes up in conversation here just in case you think Garland isn’t triple-underlining his points of reference. This movie’s Lee apparently made her name photographing “The Antifa Massacre”, whatever that might have been, although I suppose we can fill in the blanks with that hilariously blunt title—the sort of spot-on touch that you can imagine got a news-room graphics-creator a pay bump, right before the dollar stopped functioning anyway. Flirting with the eloquent miserablism of her Melancholia performance, Dunst’s face here is all steely grimaces—“matter-of-fact” and “tough-as-nails” and all of those cliches rattle around, but Dunst makes this Lee her own Lee. And small springs of kindness and generosity do eventually find their way to the front.

She’s got good reason to be riled up though, and not just because of the, you know, ongoing civil war thing. As she and her work partner Joel (a dangerously charming Wagner Moura) gear up to take a road trip from New York down to the White House in hopes of securing the final interview with the embattled Commander-in-Chief, whose house of cards is about to tumble, Joel tosses two human-sized curveballs her way.

One is a veteran reporter named Sammy (such a veteran reporter name, “Sammy”) who is played by the always welcome Stephen McKinley Henderson—and once upon a time here I would have said that Henderson always immediately denotes a warmth of presence, but Ari Aster went and soiled that assumption with his deranged usage of Henderson in Beau is Afraid. Still Henderson’s Sammy in Civil War is indeed meant to denote a warmth of presence, so please try to shuffle Beau is Afraid out of your mind if at all possible. Sammy is wisdom incarnate, and Lee’s oldest friend in the biz… but he’s also an old man who hobbles on a cane. And Lee’s quite clear affection for him clouds up her cut-off approach.

Speaking of, the second surprise Lee finds sitting in their press vehicle is our representative of Sammy’s opposite side of the journo-spectrum—her name is Jessie (played by Priscilla star Cailee Spaeny) and she’s totally new to all of this. An early 20-something with more to prove than means to prove it. Plus Lee’s already saved Jessie’s life once at this point in the film after pulling her out of the way of a terrifying Children of Men scene that had wandered into this movie. And now Lee’s got two possible liabilities to take care of—all when she’s also got, you know, that whole civil war thing to deal with.

And so heading down river to meet their own Marlon Brando, this one just housed in a tacky blue suit, our shutterbug foursome set off to make this commute from NYC—>DC unlike any that’s come before. Civil War is wholly a road movie—a series of encounters with different cuts and corners of the same hard diamond, twinkling out our nation’s festering immoralities in exquisitely realized set-piece after set-piece of tension. There’s the bartering for gas that includes a carwash stolen straight out of Abu Ghraib. There’s a beautiful Brutalist apartment complex turned into a concrete battlefield.

And there’s the showcase scene smartly showcased in the film’s trailer, where Dunst’s real-life husband, the entirely-talented-on-his-own Jesse Plemons, puts his unsettlingly squishy features to cunning use as the entitled embodiment of our nation’s most fetid instincts. He’s basically every villain from The Walking Dead condensed down and performed by an Oscar-deserving actor, and the scene does indeed play like gangbusters. It’s one of those moments in the movies where you start holding your breath the second a character arrives, and you aren’t able to gasp furiously, wretchedly, until they’re gone. A glorious stress fracture running straight down the film’s spine.

So why then, with all of the tension I have now detailed, did I say at the review’s start that I walked out of Civil War feeling catharsis above and beyond all other things? The positive side of this is spoilerish with regards to the film’s final act, and I dare not spoil those specifics—let’s just say that while I wouldn’t quite call it “closure” Garland finds a way to a final image that will infuriate all of the right people while also making my heart sing.

The problem though is that the film gets to it by coasting on a journalist’s ethics of pure objective documentation over anything resembling subjectivity, and this film that basically demanded to be made at this moment in time doesn’t quite earn its laurels by its end. It takes its side only after that side’s won—History is made by the winners I suppose, but not so much when you can remember the movie that just happened to you for the past two hours, with all of its steadfast refusals to get very specific. And so Civil War is kind of the rollercoaster ride version of What-If riffing on right now —it works like hell in the moment, and you certainly get off the ride feeling rattled and high and like you’ve just experienced something. Would that it actually felt like a lasting and transformative accomplishment though, and not a closed circle that brought us right back to where we started from.