Civil War (2024)
Civil War (2024)

Genre: War and Thriller Running Time: 1 hr. 49 min.

Release Date: April 12th, 2024 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Alex Garland Actors: Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, Cailee Spaeny, Nelson Lee, Evan Lai, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Nick Offerman, Jesse Plemons

 


 

C

ivil war has broken out across the United States of America. Cities along the east have faced severe devastation as the Western Forces of Texas and California steadily push towards Washington, D.C. where they seek to overthrow a heavily fortified President (Nick Offerman) and his loyalists. Renowned war photojournalist Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst) and her colleague Joel (Wagner Moura) ready themselves to make the over 800-mile, indirect journey from Brooklyn, New York to the capital, determined to interview the country’s leader – a feat not accomplished in over a year due to the reigning party’s extreme hostility towards the press. Longtime friend and mentor Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) wishes to tag along up to Charlottesville, while young Jessie Cullen (Cailee Spaeny) hopes to follow in her idol Lee’s footsteps, chasing the perfect photographs in hazardous war zones. What begins as a daring adventure for the foursome quickly becomes a shocking nightmare as they inch closer to their destination, uncovering the wanton savagery of war and the limits of human cruelty, laid bare by hatred and lawlessness.

It’s quite the prescient, timely topic, skirting around transparent messaging by depicting the events from the perspective of the press – themselves a somewhat suspiciously neutral, ragtag quartet. With these scrappy characters as guides, audiences are thrust into the chaos of realistically orchestrated protests that transform into riots and then acts of terrorism. For anyone blissfully unaware of how serious these sorts of demonstrations can become – in the blink of an eye – “Civil War” is ready to educate. “We record so other people ask.”

With compelling reenactments of motives, movements, and actions of large swathes of the United States rebelling against an undemocratic central government, the film works to generate a remarkable amount of tension. From the arrangement of aid camps to the difficulties of ordinary routines in potentially hostile territories (like filling up a car with gas) to violence against outsiders, the atrocities witnessed by the leads are eerily similar to recent zombie apocalypse premises. When people are left to fend for themselves, violent chaos ensues, not unlike in “War of the Worlds” or “Children of Men,” which used sci-fi notions to scrutinize how taken-for-granted social contracts can crumble (perhaps its most scathing critique is on those who refuse to take sides, pretending that civilization disintegrating around them is merely something to stay out of). Indeed, some of “Civil War’s” greatest strengths are in the annihilated landscapes and dilapidated structures (ominously decorated or demolished) that house soldiers and survivors alike.

Had this effort focused on more universal, exterior, existential threats, it might have played as a better examination of communities straining and breaking under political unrest (the moments reserved for photojournalists risking life and limb for a shot are superior, however, echoing components of “Nightcrawler”). Instead, its divisive (though veracious) setup may push the picture into being as dismissed as the numbingly prophetic “Contagion” from 2011 (failing to scare the right viewers, or enough of them, straight), which could have been used as an instructional piece had it been recognized for its accuracy at the time; here, plenty of comparisons and equivalencies arise that are clearly aligned to contemporary people and campaigns, which currently stoke division and distrust. Likewise, this cautionary tale is bound to unerringly predict spot-on revelations for future escalations – the least of which is undoubtedly in the volatility of armed civilians no longer beholden to traditional laws and oversight (or maybe political figures corrupting norms and escaping justice).

Despite the utter perfection of numerous sequences of mayhem – from shootouts to executions – the inclusion of an inexperienced, ill-equipped child in a war zone is terribly problematic, not just from the inappropriate dangerousness but also from the ignorance, which leads to a highly detrimental finale. Before that, however, is a superb barrage of military conflicts so riddled with ear-piercing sound effects and unnerving intensity that they rival evident inspirations like “Full Metal Jacket” and “Black Hawk Down”; “Civil War” borrows or nods to many war films, particularly with its expertly unpredictable transitions into action, and the distinct divergences between onscreen brutality and its lively soundtrack. It’s stylish and quirky, alongside the “war is hell” theme, which is consistently visualized in pulse-pounding thrills; the technical aspects are exquisite.

The realism is extraordinary – in the heinous behaviors of anarchic insurgents, as well as the gut-wrenching shots of combat. Writer/director Alex Garland is occasionally preoccupied with capturing fragility, futility, and the viciousness of humankind in alternately shocking and beautiful cinematographic frames, which nicely complement striking character arcs (including an older, slower man forced into unlikely exertion, or the artistic contrast of the clashing photojournalists shifting from frightened to excited and from unfazed to petrified). But it’s the horror-movie exhilarations and confrontations (Jesse Plemons is again an effortlessly alarming villain) that win out, keeping the white-knuckle suspense so high that audiences are likely to forgive or overlook the missteps in intermittently unoriginal ideas or cliche relationships (or that unfortunate, questionable climax).

– The Massie Twins

  • 7/10