Civil War

Prior to its release, there was an assumption that Civil War was going to intentionally prod the sky-high division between Right and Left in the United States. Writer/director Alex Garland (Ex Machina) is too smart to be exploitative, though. In reality, the movie is an admiring tribute to war photographers that uses the concept of a second American civil war as a meaningful backdrop. The choice is effective, as it drives home the danger these journalists put themselves in while also making you think about how terrible it would be to walk outside your door not knowing who was on your side and who wanted to kill you.

The White House is occupied by a dictatorial president (Nick Offerman) who gave himself a third term. This has sparked nationwide conflict between his supporters and detractors. Photojournalist Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst) covers the action in New York City with her colleague Joel (Wagner Moura). When word spreads that Washington, DC will fall imminently, they decide to drive there for a confrontational interview with the Commander-in-Chief. Accompanying them are veteran reporter Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and rookie photographer Jessie (Cailee Spaeny).

For its first two-thirds, Civil War shows the characters making their way to the nation’s capital and seeing the effects of the war firsthand. They have a tense stand-off at a gas station protected by armed civilians and later encounter a militia member (Jesse Plemons) with no qualms about taking matters into his own hands. One of the best scenes finds the quartet landing in a small town that surprisingly seems to be ignoring the national crisis. The final third is action-heavy – and very intense – as the journalists end up in the thick of massive fighting. It’s harrowing to be presented with the film’s notions of what a modern-day civil war might look like.

The real focus, however, is the relationship between Lee and Jessie. The former is weary, having seen a lot of bad stuff in her day. Her mental state is starting to become affected by what she captures happening in her own country. Jessie is on the opposite end, just beginning her career and demonstrating both fear and naivety. Their relationship develops in a fascinating manner, as Lee mentors Jessie, and Jessie grows more assured as Lee becomes more fragile. Taking this approach allows the movie to dig into the psychological aspect of war journalism, where bravery is required and emotional devastation is inevitable.

Dunst does incredible low-key work as Lee, showing how the detached, seen-it-all attitude she’s developed out of necessity gradually demonstrates signs of cracking. The actress makes you feel her fatigue in your bones. Spaeny, who deserves an Oscar nomination for her performance here, matches Dunst in reverse, initially playing Jessie as scared, then conveying her rising confidence. In one sequence, the young woman says she’s never felt more scared or more alive than during the perilous trek to DC, and we believe it. The inverse trajectories of the veteran and the newbie provide insight into this unique career.

By the time the third act comes around, Garland and his stars have developed these characters sufficiently to drop them into violent mayhem without losing prominence. The finale is a wise choice. We need to observe Lee and Jessie in the most extreme situation possible. Civil War dovetails the interpersonal angle with the national division angle to pay them both off powerfully. The perfect final shot smacks you with tons of thematic implications. Sit through the end credits because you’ll need a minute to digest what you’ve just seen.

With its observant ideas, exemplary performances, and relentless pace, the movie proves electrifying. Civil War gets you on edge early, then holds you there until the last second. Americans killing other Americans is a big topic. Garland is savvy enough to recognize that tackling it through a character study was the right way to go. I won’t shake this film off anytime soon.


out of four

Civil War is rated R for strong violent content, bloody/disturbing images, and language throughout. The running time is 1 hour and 49 minutes.

Universal

© 2024 Mike McGranaghan