‘Civil War’ Review: Zero Whimpers, Plenty of Bangs

Peter Paras reviews Civil War, director Alex Garland's incredibly visceral cinematic experience that depicts the results of an un-united United States.
User Rating: 8

Alex Garland’s Civil War is one of the most visceral cinematic experiences I’ve had in years. Shot for IMAX, the dystopian nightmare follows a quartet of journalists across a battle-weary America and ratchets up the tension to eleven. Gunshots so commonplace in movies are piercing—practically breaking the theater’s Dolby Atmos speakers.

Starring Kirsten Dunst, Cailee Spaeney, Wagner Moura, and Stephen McKinley Henderson as the aforementioned war correspondents who aren’t interested in taking a political stance despite living in an un-united country. Their job is to “record the actions that take place “so others can ask the big questions.” Can such a powder-legged premise work without much in the way of messaging or a point of view? As the most expensive film made by A24, the money is on the screen. You’ll feel every explosion, every near miss. If the characters themselves are thinly written, well, that’s why you hire a star like Dunst.

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When a pair of millenials, war photographer Lee (Dunst) and journalist  Joel (Moura) set out to scoop fellow reporters for the quote of the century, they’re saddled with two additional members of the press: cynical boomer Sammy (Henderson) and naive GenZer Jessie (Spaeny). Three generations out to grab a part of history take a road trip in a white pickup truck marked “PRESS.” The United States is days away from collapsing. The President (Nick Offerman) will either be captured or killed by the combined forces of California and Texas, known as The Western Front. Will their cross-country trek, which includes a stop in Charlottesville, VA, end in bloodshed? Most assuredly.

Back in 2013, the indie horror game Outlast challenged players used to killing zombies with shotguns, grenades, and infinite rocket launchers à la Resident Evil. Outlast was different. You played unarmed journalist Miles seeking the truth at the Mount Massive Asylum. Armed with only a video camera (and never enough batteries), one is tasked with avoiding imposing beings that do much more than go bump in the night. The catch is there’s never a pistol lying around to make with the shooty shooty. One simply has to outlast the night. That’s it.

Plenty of powerful and influential war films have focused on characters who never pick up a weapon. Yet, this film reminded me more of Outlast than, say, The Year of Living Dangerously. Garland plays video games (he loves Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, Part I and Part II), so perhaps that’s why Civil War feels so immersive rather than merely cinematic.

At least Ellie learned how to use a rifle in The Last of Us. Lee and her companions never get such an opportunity, hoping to survive by going from point A to point B. Sometimes, that entails wading through abandoned cars on a highway that feels like, well, The Last of Us. Alas, they don’t have crafting skills.

One decision that might confuse viewers, but intentionally so, is the military camo worn by anyone with a firearm. Typically, the costume designer would use colors and materials to help distinguish one army from another. Here, though, that’s part of the point. Both sides, armed in their respective gear, look and act pretty much the same.

The four press members’ plainclothes makes a stark contrast. Costume designer Meghan Kasperlik played with similar ways to use what characters wear to blur lines in her previous work on Moon Knight. Better still, when Lee and Jessie wear bulky helmets and Kevlar, they seem uncomfortable.

While the Oscar-winning Oppenheimer more often used the IMAX format to enhance its subtleties, Civil War goes for MAXimum impact. Nearly every shot is framed to look real yet heightened. Now and then, Garland’s frequent collaborator, cinematographer Rob Hardy, will allow artistic flourishes to accentuate a character’s mood. As is common with Garland’s work, the use of negative space is expertly featured.

Aided by the production design by City Maxey (Yellowstone), pops of chalky colors against a concrete wall can highlight Jessie’s ever-disintegrating mental state. Most scenes are made to feel documentary-style. Even the several still shots of photojournalism interspersed throughout feel authentic rather than staged.

Recently, Garland said Civil War might be the last time in the director’s chair. I assume this means he wants to return to being a writer. While Garland has crafted terrific scripts in the past (Ex Machina, Dredd), the strengths on display over the film’s 104 min are pretty much everything but the writing. It’s not just that the characterizations are thin. Sometimes, they’ll say or act in ways that feel somewhat mindless. An all too brief scene with Jesse Plemons as one who questions what kind of American the journalists are hints at a much more compelling conversation on the politics of our country at large. The scene highlighted in the trailer also comes way too late in the story. It’s not a dealbreaker as the experience of watching the IMAX film is powerful regardless. Still, a more layered script could have taken Civil War from great to masterful.

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

Written by
Peter Paras is pop culture writer who has been reviewing films for the past fifteen years. Raised in Chicago—but an Angeleno since the start of 21st century—he has plenty to say about films, television, videogames, and the occasional YouTube channel. He’s a frequent guest on Out Now with Aaron and Abe, as well as TV Campfire Podcast. His work has been published at Why So Blu, Game Revolution and E! Online. His favorites include: Sunset Blvd, Step Up 2 The Streets, Hackers, Paris Is Burning, both installments of The Last of Us, Destiny 2, and Frasier.

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