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Review: ‘Civil War’ aims for discomfort with its worst-case-scenario account

‘Civil War’ is a provocative fiction that imagines civic unrest reaching a tipping point, resulting in war

A scene from 'Civil War'
A scene from 'Civil War' courtesy of Elevation Pictures
A scene from 'Civil War' courtesy of Elevation Pictures

‘Civil War’ is a provocative fiction that imagines civic unrest reaching a tipping point, resulting in war across America.

The current state of world affairs has many worried about the future and, for some, local issues are more concerning than ever. Divisions have widened and extremist voices our drowning out the moderates. Horrific wars are being waged across borders and ordinary citizens are bearing the brunt of the consequences. Film is often seen as a form of escape, allowing audiences to avoid these anxieties for a brief time. But it’s also a way to explore things that viewers fear, confronting them with the worst possible scenarios before they become a reality. Civil War imagines a not-so-distant future in which the United States is experiencing a violent upheaval.

Lee (Kirsten Dunst) and Joel (Wagner Moura) arrive at the location of a water truck, where dozens of Americans are waiting for the ration distribution to begin. She’s a photojournalist and he’s a reporter, and amongst the commotion they meet Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), an aspiring war photographer. Secessionist states, California and Texas, have formed a coalition, the Western Forces, to remove the authoritarian president slowly dismantling the country’s democracy. In the final days of the conflict, Lee, Joel, Jessie and veteran journalist Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) make the cross-country journey from New York to Washington to be on the frontlines of the second American Civil War.

The first 20 minutes of the movie look very familiar — except for one important distinction: instead of unfolding on foreign soil, it’s happening in the United States. From the hostility at the water truck to the war correspondents converging in their hotel’s lobby to share stories from their day’s exploits, these are sights frequently seen on the nightly news and other movies about war. The film goes further as combat is waged in recognizable locations and famous landmarks that viewers may have visited on family vacations or school trips are destroyed in the heat of battle. Writer-director Alex Garland is not attempting to make his point subtly. The images unquestionably hit differently when they’re closer to home and the context aims to make viewers rethink how they perceive these scenes in real life — particularly the picture’s haunting last 20 minutes.

Telling the story from the point-of-view of journalists at different stages of their careers reconfirms the importance of legitimate press. At one point, Lee states, “We record so others can ask questions.” They risk their lives to capture these nation-altering events as they happen, documenting history in real time. However, while Joel can’t get enough of the action, Lee may have lost her faith in the power of their work. She believed surviving other warzones to deliver her photographs served as a warning to avoid this level of domestic violence, yet here she is now capturing death and destruction on home soil, and it’s breaking her spirit.

The film was conceived four years ago, before the events of January 6, 2021, but that incident only cemented the picture’s narrative. Garland could have set the movie in any Western country, but the world looks toward the United States, following its policies and internal conflicts, so it made sense as the key location. Although the film doesn’t choose a side or focus on a specific political rhetoric, there is something to be said that Garland would imagine an alliance between two states that historically don’t see eye-to-eye, but are able to put aside their differences to stop fascism in their country.

Yet, at the forefront is the hazardous on-the-job training Jessie receives from her involuntary mentor, Lee. The trio of experienced journalists focus more on educating her about staying alive in a warzone than honing her craft. She has to learn quickly as there is little room for error when embedding yourself with armed fighters engaging in live gunfights. However, after a terrible incident, Jessie grows more courageous, which to some degree also makes her predictably reckless. In the end, there’s two possible conclusions to the film. Whether Garland chose the right one will be up to audiences to decide — personally, I may have gone the other way.

Director: Alex Garland
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura and Cailee Spaeny

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Sarah Gopaul is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for film news, a member of the Online Film Critics Society and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer-approved critic.

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