‘Civil War’ Review: One Nation Under Garland

Aaron Neuwirth reviews Civil War, an effective dystopian action drama from director Alex Garland, who details how a Second American Civil War in a fractured country could play out in an alternate version of our reality.
User Rating: 8

Bang! Pow! No, those aren’t the thundering sounds of gunfire and explosions from the nifty IMAX presentation of Alex Garland’s Civil War. I’m thinking more of the alarms going off all over the internet upon seeing the first trailer for this film. In the divided age America is currently living in, would a film that focuses on the plausible idea of a second American Civil War occurring in an alternate, not-too-distant future cause even more strife within the country? Beyond the notion that it’s just a movie, and literal riots are no more likely to occur than when certain critics were worried about the effect of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing or, more fittingly, when potential outrage was predicted for Todd Phillips’ Billion-dollar hit film Joker, Civil War is too withdrawn, narratively, to really build to that sort of fever pitch. That said, the film is still a technical marvel, combining sight and sound in brutally gorgeous ways, and placing many good elements within the frame throughout.

Assembled to play as a dystopian action drama, the film is set in a near future where a multiparty Civil War has engulfed the entire nation. Little information about this war is given (A24 had to provide a helpful map), aside from understanding that the President of the United States (Nick Offerman) leads the Loyalist States against the Western Forces of a united California and Texas (a key reminder that this is a work of fiction).

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Kirsten Dunst and Wagner Moura star as members of the press. Dunst’s Lee is a renowned war photojournalist who gets a new tagalong in the form of Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), an aspiring photographer. She and Stephen McKinley Henderson’s Sammy, another journalist, join the other journalists on a road trip to reach Washington D.C., where they hope to get an interview with the President before this whole thing ends in one way or another.

While Garland’s previous directed films, Ex Machina and Annihilation, are brimming with ideas that challenge ideas of humanity in literal ways, Civil War feels more of a piece with his previous, most divisive film, Men. None of these efforts are lacking in craft, atmosphere, or quality of performance, but these past two are aiming for something both visceral and allegorical. Men was a provocative and not-too-subtle look at toxic masculinity. Civil War, however, is set on taking a polarized nation to a specific and terrifying outcome.

With that in mind, Garland is a Brit looking at things from the outside. That’s not to say he has no position here regarding how to put this sort of escalation on display, far from it. However, the natural wonder of where this is all going, what this specific story has to offer, and if a deliberate side is chosen becomes pertinent. Is Garland attempting to enlighten the audience with a nuanced take rooted in the point of view of those simply looking to capture the story on camera? Or maybe he’s just mocking various establishments by showing what happens when you watch them eat themselves alive based on unseen events that brought this war upon them.

If I have a frustration with this otherwise very affecting and intense feature, it’s how determined the film is not to take much of a stand. Yes, various audience members will absolutely look at specific scenarios depicted in the movie and have their own individual ruling on what Civil War is all about, who certain characters or parts of the country represent, and so on. Still, little is going on in the grand scheme of things. Nothing is mentioned about policy. Troops largely dress the same. The movie is purposely ambiguous about many of its admittedly thought-provoking ideas and concepts. Even the one heavily advertised scene featuring Jesse Plemons as an intimidating soldier holding a rifle, asking, “What kind of American are you?” features as a sequence that can be inserted into anything and have the same desired effect (though that sequence is riveting).

Perhaps I should be happier that the film doesn’t have more definite things it wants to overtly state. But that’s not quite it. Plenty of films, whether they are focused on war or function as sci-fi satires, can offer plenty without hitting the nail on the head. There’s a deliberate choice being made to be noncommittal in its attempt to address a time full of controversy. However, I look forward to the conversations and think pieces that will come as a result, let alone being happy to hear whatever Garland may say when speaking on this film.

Naturally, a movie is made up of many things, and there’s no reason not to highlight the many ways in which this film shines. Starting with the performances, while Henderson is a reliable supporting player, and Moura and Spaeny hold their own, Dunst puts in the most substantial effort. Coming off an Oscar nomination for The Power of the Dog, playing a war-torn photographer, she’s suggesting a lot without saying too much, and it’s excellent work.

The in-the-moment approach to many scenes finds her character, along with the others, reacting with a level of sense that denotes someone who cares for what they are doing and is one who’s seen it all and is numb to the violence. Having to also function as a mentor figure of sorts means Dunst’s Lee has a familiar but effective ark as one delivering both tough love and more nurturing choices to Spaeny’s Jessie.

If we really want to spotlight the standout of this film, it’s cinematographer Rob Hardy. Having worked on Garland’s other films and Mission: Impossible – Fallout, there’s so much to admire about how well this film captures scale and scope despite ultimately functioning as an individual journey for a small team. Closeups and literal photographic moments establish a rhythm for the film that allows us to have a large window into the emotions of a given moment. When Civil War wants to focus on the action, not only is it presenting military strategy in a manner that, at least, wants to suggest a level of authenticity, but the movie also makes sure we feel as though we are on the frontlines, watching firefights play out.

Sound design is another big win for this film, as the auditory demands do a number on the senses. Many deliberate choices are made to communicate the extreme nature of various situations, just how powerful weapons can be, and what silence can bring to a scene as well. On top of that, some unexpected music choices are juxtaposed with plenty of memorable sequences, further adding to the beautiful chaos on display.

Whether or not Civil War is lost in what it is trying to get across on a more meaningful and political level, it makes up for in cinematic display. For a film from A24, a studio formed to give life to smaller features, there’s something to be said for how effective a movie like this ends up being on a bigger-than-average budget for them, with an IMAX release to add to it all. Not hurting are all the excellent craft elements and a strong lead performance to round it all out. Uniting people may not be the goal here, but Civil War can speak to a populace looking for marvelous spectacle with specific sensibilities and perhaps some form of liberty in mind.

Civil War opens in theaters and IMAX on April 12, 2024.

Written by
Aaron Neuwirth is a movie fanatic and Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic from Orange County, California. He’s a member of the African American Film Critics Association, the Hollywood Critics Association, the Online Film Critics Society, and the Black Film Critics Circle. As an outgoing person who is always thrilled to discuss movies, he’s also a podcaster who has put far too many hours into published audio content associated with film and television. His work has been published at Variety, We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, The Young Folks, Firstshowing.net, Screen Rant, and Hi-Def Ninja.

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