Civil War – Film Review

Civil War might just be Alex Garland’s most intriguing film to date. Garland, known for his thought-provoking works, transforms the speculative discourse of an impending civil war, rampant in the United States, into cinematic material. He endeavors to depict how a potential internal conflict, anticipated by many, could unfold. As viewers, we were inclined to believe in the plausibility of such a premise. However, the film, while staying true to its essence, deviates significantly from the expectations set by its trailer. While the phrase “someone is trying to kill us, and we’re trying to kill them” in the trailer may evoke the excitement audiences crave, it bears little relevance to that sharp line in the trailer. Despite a tinge of disappointment, Civil War stands as a compelling achievement, delivering on its promises, embodying a quintessential Alex Garland adventure.

Let’s briefly delve into the plot… The phrase “civil war,” regularly exploited by the GOP, utterly subservient to Trump, and their social media trolls for incitement, emerges in the film without any explanation. The war is already underway, nearing its end. Lee (Kirsten Dunst), a war photographer, alongside Wagner Moura (Joel) and Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), a seasoned veteran, seeks to interview a president claiming imminent victory in the war. To achieve this, they must traverse hundreds of perilous miles from New York to DC. Joined by Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), the group encounters various adversities along the way.

Naturally, audiences anticipated witnessing the clash between two distinct factions, divided along ideological lines. Political messages interspersed throughout were expected to adorn this thematic battlefield. However, Garland opts not to divulge any information or provide explanations regarding the subject he aims to profit from. Indeed, the film’s focal point isn’t the war itself, but rather, war journalism. Through the lens of impartial correspondents caught amidst the conflict, the film poignantly portrays the drama of war, offering visually compelling narratives. War journalism intrigues me particularly, as it stands as one of the few professions where survival and upholding ethical values collide. A statement uttered by Lee in the car encapsulates the essence of the entire film, sufficient to elucidate its themes and nuance:

“Once you start asking those questions you can’t stop. So we don’t ask. We record so other people ask.”

“A Private War” draws thematic parallels with works such as “Photographers Season 1 Episode 6” and even “Nightcrawler.” I cannot attest to the film’s accuracy in portraying the reality of war correspondents. Taking Muhammed Muheisen as an example, reporters indeed find themselves immersed in the midst of conflict. However, the notion of journalists embedded with soldiers seems implausible. Nonetheless, it creates a magnificent spectacle on screen. The chaotic scenario of soldiers engaged in combat while constantly advising journalists to “lie down, move, take cover” is a remarkable depiction of chaos. Despite the sequence of conflict being inherently poignant, with Hawaiian-shirted M16-wielding civilians, it inexplicably elicited laughter.

Given that the film primarily tells the story of war journalism, the backdrop of civil war and its dynamics remain in the shadows. Moreover, the dynamics of war depicted in the film are far removed from reality. Despite not residing in America, having grown up within American culture, and closely following American politics, the portrayal of Texas and California on the same side, followed by Florida, defies all logic. However, such is life, filled with surprises. In hindsight, it’s actually a blessing for us as viewers that Alex Garland chose not to explain everything in the film. 

The group, which seeks to reach Nick Offerman’s literally-Trump-imitation presidential character, encounters numerous dangers on their journey. Unfortunately, the journey segment of the film is its weakest part. Sequences featuring gun-loving rednecks, deranged snipers, and impoverished civilians from all walks of life, though attempting to capture interest, fall short. The reason is that our anticipation is built on a different subject. And this subject throughout the film isn’t met on the roads. The film truly begins when the roads end, and our characters encounter the aggressive soldier portrayed by Jesse Plemons, sporting his red glasses.

I must admit, I felt somewhat bored until Jesse Plemons appeared on screen. However, with his red glasses, Plemons immediately injects life into the film. He’s already a fantastic actor, and the unease and unpredictability conveyed through his red glasses turn the scene into one of the most striking I’ve seen in recent years. Plemons embodies the manifestation of organizations spreading hatred under the guise of nationalism on social media. You can feel the impending death lurking within his soullessness. Especially with the question, “What kind of American are you?” you realize things are about to get chaotic, and some characters may not make it out alive. Those living in America would recognize this character well. Despite being fictional, the character has never felt closer to reality.

Upon the characters’ arrival in DC, the film began to deliver what I sought. Unrelenting action unfolded—tanks demolishing towers, soldiers firing until their magazines emptied, suit-clad men defending their treacherous leaders with assault rifles, and amidst this chaos, journalists thirsting for capturing moments through their lenses. DC, especially the segment around the White House, is truly magnificent. What elevates this breathtaking sequence is Cailee Spaeny’s embodiment of Louis Bloom from “Nightcrawler.” Jessie, diving headlong into the heart of war fueled by fear-induced exhilaration, grants us a taste of that strange pleasure borne from fear. The final frames featuring Jessie might just be the most striking shots Alex Garland has captured to date. No Mercy.

Frankly, what we anticipated from the film was to “get lost in the moments,” yet it presents us with a masterclass in acting. Kirsten Dunst delivers a stellar performance, her neutral expression devoid of all color, portraying a journalist who, having lost all emotions after witnessing years of brutality, now normalizes capturing dying men alongside their executioners. Wagner Moura’s mere presence is sufficient—he’s a magnificent actor. I believe I’ve praised Jesse Plemons enough. However, I must mention Cailee Spaeny for a brief moment. Within the past year, no one else has risen as swiftly as she has, appearing in serious films following “Priscilla,” and now, with “Civil War” and soon “Alien,” she’s ascending to heights previously untouched. And deservedly so. Despite her petite appearance, the seriousness in her voice can sometimes be chilling.

In essence… “Civil War,” despite being vastly different from what was expected, manages to satisfy with its final half-hour. Frankly, the film feels absent until Jesse Plemons appears. However, the last half-hour lives up to its name and the excitement it promises. While the film leans more towards performances than moments, it provides ample space for them. Everyone, especially Jesse Plemons, delivers performances that will linger in memory. While it may not be the “film” we anticipated, unfortunately, it still merits a viewing, particularly for its final half-hour, which I believe is worth experiencing on IMAX screens. Though the film’s departure from logic may dampen the excitement, its unparalleled nature ensures it captivates.

Cast & Crew

director: Alex Garland

writers: Alex Garland

starring: Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, Cailee Spaeny, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Nick Offerman

USA | 2024 | 109 MINUTES |


Ukrainian Creative Director | Motion Picture Writer | Horror Freak

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