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  • Writer's pictureSaxon Whitehead

'Civil War': A Visceral, Polarizing Political Thriller



It is not too surprising that someone would make a film dealing with America's divided politics. What is surprising is that the person making said film is Alex Garland. While Garland has a lot of experience when it comes to crafting dystopian worlds, he isn't exactly known as a political filmmaker. On top of that, he is British, so it doesn't seem too farfetched to question his understanding of US politics. Nevertheless, Garland's latest film, Civil War, seeks to explore the polarized politics of the United States through the eyes of journalists covering a second American Civil War. Set in the near future, the film takes the kind of warfare many Americans cannot fathom taking place on US soil, and hypothesizes what that might look like. The result is a loud, explosive, and intense odyssey that puts the audience right in the middle of the action. Civil War poses a few interesting questions and ideas, but it doesn't hand viewers the answers. This ends up being a double-edged sword for the film, as it never feels heavy-handed, but it feels a bit shallow in its commentary. Civil War certainly is a film that has plenty to say, but the way it says them left me conflicted, and is guaranteed to divide audiences.


In the near future, war has broken out in the United States. The country is broken into factions, such as the Western Forces and the Florida Alliance. Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst) is a prolific war photographer, and is about to head on a journey to Washington D.C. with her work colleague, Joel (Wagner Moura). They intend to interview and photograph the President (Nick Offerman) before soldiers of the secessionist armies descend on the city. Lee and Joel are joined by veteran journalist Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and fledgling photographer Jessie (Cailee Spaeny). Along the way, they document some of the fighting, encounter a dangerous militia, and do everything they can to make it to D.C. before it is too late.


Most filmmakers would take a premise like this and have their true intent be as clear as day. But Alex Garland has a certain level of neutrality when it comes to this film, mainly in terms of how he presents everything. Instead of tinging some of the larger moments with his own political opinions, he mainly shows the events of this film for what they are. This turns the film into more of a Rorschach Test, as the audiences opinions on this film are largely going to be informed by their own sociopolitical perspectives. This approach somewhat mirrors the journalists at Civil War's center, as they are in the midst of horrific violence and bloodshed, but are only really concerned with getting a perfect shot of the action. They are passive observers who obtain a version of the truth before delivering it to the masses. The journalists may want to stay neutral and just do their job, but their work will ultimately adopt a deeper meaning that will affect other characters in the film differently depending on their allegiances. That's exactly how Garland's film will undoubtedly play out for many. The film tells a complete story, but the viewer's own political beliefs will certainly color in the areas that Garland leaves blank.


This seemingly purposeful level of objectivity is part of what I like about Civil War, as it allows it to have different meanings for different people. However, it does come at a small cost for the film as a whole. While the film's narrative is clear as day, its true intentions and overall politics feel a bit murky. Again, your overall interpretation may vary based on your own political ideology, but the lack of a definitive political viewpoint does make the film's larger themes feel a bit thin. That said, I think the film would have been far worse if it took more of a side, but it is still frustrating. It hinders the film from having a larger impact, and I felt like I was being kept at arms length in certain moments.


It's a shame, because so many moments of the film are legitimately enthralling, and have a great immersive quality to them. The combat sequences are so loud and intense, and puts you firmly in the POV of the film's characters. What is fascinating to me is that the warfare in this film is what some might associate with films about war in other countries. Most Americans cannot fathom what a war on US soil would look like, but this film does a good job of visualizing it. It recalls imagery from other war movies, especially those made in response to the Iraq War, but transposes it from other countries to the United States. One could argue that this is commentary on American perspectives of war, in that most think of the atrocities of it as things that only happen in less-developed nations. The reality is that the events that happen in this film could actually happen in America, and the film portrays them as such. At the very least, it provides some food for thought, and yields some gripping sequences in the process.


The film's ensemble does a bit of the heavy lifting here, as just about everyone is turning in exceptional work. Kirsten Dunst gives an understated turn at Lee Smith, a renowned photojournalist. We see the psychological toll that her profession has on her, and she is especially great in her scenes with Cailee Spaeny. I love a good "jaded mentor takes a rookie under their wing" storyline, and we get this through Dunst and Spaeny's dynamic. The two complement each other well, with Dunst's more measured, internal work playing off of Spaeny's more expressive performance. Dunst has this weariness to her that is played so effortlessly, and the things she brings to the character helps boost some of the film's commentary on war journalists. Spaeny continues to show that she is one of our most interesting new actors, and the journey her character goes on in this film is handled so effectively on her part.


I also really appreciate what Wagner Moura brings to the table, as he plays a rather cocky character. I am not too familiar with Moura as an actor, but I really like his work here. He adds an interesting element to the film, in that he feels rather self-centered and has a bolder presence than most of the other characters. He gives the film a bit of juice that I wasn't expecting, and he is especially great in the moments where we see some of the cracks in his confident façade. Stephen McKinley Henderson takes on the wise old mentor role, but he gives it so much personality and energy that it elevates the character. Henderson is a great character actor, and this might be one of my favorite performances I've seen from him. He is so likable, and has several great moments in the film that let him shine. A particular scene where he is talking to Dunst while the journalists stop in a town seemingly unaffected by the war really stood out to me, and ends on a killer line delivery from Henderson. I also must shout Jesse Plemons, who comes in for one of the film's most unsettling scenes and nearly steals the whole film. He plays an unnamed white nationalist militiaman, and he manages to be terrifying while playing things at a lower level of energy than one might expect. He knows the right level to play the character, and keeps him from feeling like a caricature. His scene is a true standout, and might be the most intense moment of the whole film.


Some people might be annoyed that Civil War doesn't go into specifics over how the war was started, or that it doesn't spend too much time fleshing out the world of the film. I would argue that it is better for not going into too much detail on this. Given that America's political divide has been widening for decades now, there are numerous potential causes for the film's civil war. The film could have put the blame on anything (or perhaps a number of things) as the cause of the war, but it's honestly for the best that it doesn't pin it on one specific issue. I can understand why people might want to know the circumstances that led to the war, but I would much rather the film leave certain things ambiguous as opposed to being bogged down by exposition. It allows the film to cut right to the chase, and keeps the film as a whole from feeling boring.


Regardless, the most important aspect of the film is how it views journalism. The journalists are portrayed as people who are doing their job, but it is the nature of their job that is questionable. They are right in the middle of warfare, and are photographing various atrocities, yet they don't have much concern for any of it. They are obviously worried for their own safety in certain moments, but they don't think much about the horrors they are witnessing. We do get a scene where Dunst's character, Lee, experiences a PTSD flashback from her previous war correspondence, but that's about the extent we see anyone reckon with what they are seeing. A very telling moment comes from an early scene where Spaeny's character, Jessie, ventures off while the group is refueling. She sees two men chained up in an abandoned car wash, and is followed by a militiaman with a gun. Lee goes down to diffuse the situation and solves it by taking a picture of the militiaman with the two chained up bodies. We then cut to Jessie crying in the back of the van with the journalists, where she is upset that she didn't get any photos while they were stopped. She isn't all that concerned that she was nearly in a dangerous situation, but she is mad that she didn't get any good shots. There are other moments that play into the journalist's role in war, and it mostly portrays them as strange, passive witnesses that see the horrors of warfare, but can't do anything about it. There is a sick psychosis to these characters, as they are obsessed with getting the best images and the best stories, but have a level of disregard for the actual people involved in the war. The film doesn't make them out to be complete villains, but there is a level of complicity that comes with their actions in this film.


Civil War might not go as deep as it could have, but it is still a very interesting text. Some will be mad that this film doesn't go into painstaking detail of how the war happened, or will be upset that the film doesn't reflect their own politics, but that is part of what I like about it. It allows the viewer to use their own perspective to fill in the blanks, and gets right to the point. It is an adrenaline filled journey through a war-torn United States that struggles with some of its commentary, but delivers an immersive experience that puts you right in the middle of the action. This is a film that I have been kicking around in my head since I saw it, and I'll be curious to see if my overall opinion changes any the longer I sit with it. Regardless, Civil War is sure to divide audiences, but its approach to US politics and the hypothetical war at its center is fascinating at the very least.


Rating: 3.5/5



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