Combustible Celluloid Review - Civil War (2024), Alex Garland, Alex Garland, Kirsten Dunst, Cailee Spaeny, Wagner Moura, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Nick Offerman, Nelson Lee, Evan Lai, Jefferson White, Greg Hill, Edmund Donovan, Karl Glusman, Melissa Saint-Amand, Jin Ha, Sonoya Mizuno, Juani Feliz, Jesse Plemons
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With: Kirsten Dunst, Cailee Spaeny, Wagner Moura, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Nick Offerman, Nelson Lee, Evan Lai, Jefferson White, Greg Hill, Edmund Donovan, Karl Glusman, Melissa Saint-Amand, Jin Ha, Sonoya Mizuno, Juani Feliz, Jesse Plemons
Written by: Alex Garland
Directed by: Alex Garland
MPAA Rating: R for strong violent content, bloody/disturbing images, and language throughout
Running Time: 109
Date: 04/12/2024

Civil War (2024)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Divided States of America

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Alex Garland's Civil War is cagey about whether characters are left- or right-leaning, which, I think is part of the point. It would have been momentarily amusing, and ultimately pointless, to satirically skewer one side or the other, but what Garland has done is far more useful. The movie, rather, points to how politics — and everyone involved the pursuit of politics — is making all of us, on any side, insane.

Civil War is set in some dystopian future, not too different from our dystopian present. Apparently, California, Texas, and Florida have unsuccessfully attempted to secede from the U.S., and now citizens from those states have formed a group called the Western Alliance, that has declared war on the rest of the country, and intends to assassinate the president. The president is played by Nick Offerman, and we first see him giving some kind of victory speech. We have no idea what party he belongs to, but we are told that he is serving his third term, and he wears a red tie.

The main characters are four journalists. We meet them in New York, and they have just decided to make the dangerous road trip to Washington, D.C., to hopefully interview the president before he's killed. Famous photojournalist Lee (Kirsten Dunst) and her cohort South American-born reporter Joel (Wagner Moura) work for Reuters. They are pals with a weary old New York Times writer, Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), who asks to tag along. We also meet young Jessie (Cailee Spaeny, of Priscilla), a rookie shutterbug — packing her father's old film camera — who idolizes Lee, blunders into the wrong place at the wrong time, and is rescued by Lee. She manages to talk Joel into letting her take the fourth seat.

The trip to D.C. is a bizarre odyssey, with various stops filled with people and places and things that you are not expecting. (My moviegoing colleague joked that it was like Little Miss Sunshine crossed with Apocalypse Now.) In one scene, they happen upon a village seemingly unaffected by fighting (they go shopping and try on clothes). In another, they happen upon a Christmas village, with holiday tunes playing on tinny loudspeakers, and discover a stand off between an unknown sniper and two unknown soldiers. (The soldiers, for some reason, have multi-colored hair and fingernails.) No one claims to be on any side. They're just shooting at each other for no particular reason other than that they are being shot at. Another stop introduces us to a possibly-psychopathic man in military gear (Jesse Plemons, Dunst's husband, joining her with this sinister cameo). He wears pink sun shades and threatens the group in a quietly hateful way, grilling them as to whether they are "real" Americans.

It culminates in a blistering attack on D.C. and the White House, with an ending, a still frame, that not be easily forgotten. Again, Garland never establishes "sides" here, because all sides are equally off the rails. Our journalists are portrayed partly as heroes and partly as opportunists who swoop in to feed off of other people's battles. Lee explains that it's not their job to interpret; it's their job to get the story out and let everyone else interpret. But who better to interpret when the horrors are happening right in front of you? Or maybe not. In one scene, Joel admits how excited he is to be near a shootout, and can't wait to get over there.

Garland's three previous films as director, Ex Machina, Annihilation, and Men, were technically works of sci-fi, but all of them deconstructed humanity in fascinating ways. Civil War is almost genre-less. But what really makes it something extra is not only the fact that Garland manages to tell the story without "sides," but that he does it so coolly. The movie isn't a cautionary tale, exactly. It's not wringing its hands or trying to warn us about something. Neither is it resigned, or dispassionate, as if it has given up on the human race. It's closer to a work of journalism that Lee would be proud of. It's as free of self-interpretation as a movie can perhaps get. Now it's up to us to interpret it, and I have a feeling that — at least among the people who are bold enough to even bother to see it — it's going to be a frenzy.

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