Film reviews and more since 2009

Civil War (2024) review

Dir. Alex Garland

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★★½

When the trailer for Alex Garland’s Civil War dropped, it set the internet ablaze. Like an old George Carlin stand-up clip going viral, people on both sides of the aisle couldn’t wait to use both the paratext and the to-be-released film as a preview for whatever one of this country’s sorry ass presidential candidate’s America would look like.

Because everything is contentious and controversial in this country, Garland’s decision to make Civil War as apolitical as the photojournalists he follows in the film will surely be divisive. I’ll admit, it’s remarkable to make a film as emotionally stirring and frighteningly (and literally) close-to-home as this one without taking a side. But Garland’s decision is a lot like one of his character’s philosophies. He clearly sees himself as something of a photojournalist. It’s his job to write and frame the story, and let the images therein be interpreted by the viewer.

Such a move pleasantly prevents Civil War from any political grandstanding and reactionary pearl-clutching. This is a movie about individuals who risk their lives in order to give us a small, but vivid window into ongoing chaos. The difference this time around is while they’re used to shooting these images in far away countries, with a safe haven waiting for them when they return, it’s their soil that’s under attack.

At the center of the story is Lee Smith, played by an understated yet completely riveting Kirsten Dunst. Lee is a veteran photojournalist who has seen a dozen lifetimes’ worth of death and destruction. The United States is currently being overtaken by the Western Forces, an alliance formed between California and Texas, who are precariously close to executing the president (Nick Offerman) and assuming dictatorial control over the country. Her and her colleague, Joel (Wagner Moura), are headed to D.C. with hopes to interview the president.

Lee and Joel reluctantly bring two others along for the journey: Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson, American Fiction), a veteran photographer, and Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), a teenager who has left her family’s farmland in Missouri in pursuit of a career like her idol, Lee.

This is a road movie, but rather than the road being filled with humorous asides, the journey is defined by miles of detours, destruction, chaos, brutality, and death without a shred of remorse. This is no romantic portrayal of photojournalism either. Conversations amongst the three professionals and the young upstart range from the utility of the profession to whether or not the pervasive exposure to violent atrocities and resulting PTSD is worth the reward of “a great shot.”

Our window to this world is more-or-less Jessie, who is at first shaken to the point of tears when encountering two individuals lynched at a gas station. As time goes on, as she encounters more horrific instances of war and violence, Jessie becomes quietly desensitized to her surroundings. Garland doesn’t draw attention to this, but rather gives us glimpses into how Jessie’s poise and shooting techniques improve. Meanwhile, Spaeny gives a tender and heartfelt performance. She continues to shine after her titular performance in last year’s Priscilla.

Garland frequently interrupts the violence for momentary glimpses of the photographers Lee and her colleagues are capturing. Some are out of focus, but many could easily be viewed as defining photographs in newspapers, and later, history books.

Civil War‘s sound design is one of its greatest attributes. Gunfire is often abrupt and ear-shattering, especially when it follows quiet moments of serenity within the war-torn gloom. If it wasn’t already established that Garland isn’t making a piece of escapist entertainment, the shootouts that occur, often started by unseen enemies, are not something in which to revel. They’re petrifying in their sheer brutality. For our protagonists, however, they’re the signal to grab their cameras and their Kevlar.

While Dunst is understated and nearly unrecognizable in a role that strips her of much emotional reserve, Wagner Moura’s Joel hasn’t lost his charisma amidst the war. Oddly enough, his best and most resonant sequences follow the group’s arrival at a military base controlled by Western Forces, where he faces the reality that multiple colleagues of his have died. The symphonic score drowns out his screams of helplessness. Furthermore, Henderson remains chummy yet jaded about the entire situation, and his ability to evoke humor even in the most cynical one-liners is an endearing quality many performers wish they had. Even Dunst’s husband Jesse Plemons turns up in a dark sequence that has him evoking menace and unease through every quick, calculated movement. Whether it’s because of the versality of his roles or the mark he leaves on nearly every feature as of late, I always find myself leaning forward whenever Plemons on screen.

When you boil down Civil War to its essence, you’re left with a film that’s equal parts captivating and disturbing. Garland is less fascinated with the political innerworkings of how and why a country derails into turmoil and more intrigued by how those tasked with covering the madness operate with a clear head and a commitment to their profession. Regardless of his approach, the film is bound to elicit uncomfortable conversations, even amongst the friends and family with whom you see it. Just remember to listen before you respond.

NOTE: Civil War is now playing exclusively in theaters.

My review of Ex Machina
My review of Annihilation (2018)
My review of Men (2022)

Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, Cailee Spaeny, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Nick Offerman, Nelson Lee, Evan Lai, and Jesse Plemons. Directed by: Alex Garland.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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