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Civil War

Updated: 22 hours ago

Alex Garland's take on violent polarization is a chillingly effective watch



The concept civil wars breaking out in Western democracies is becoming less a fantastical concept than a probable nightmare. Coups have already been attempted in both the United States and Brazil following contentious elections, and political polarization hasn’t tapered out. This violent division is the concept of Alex Garland’s newest film Civil War (2024).

 

Civil War takes place in a near-future United States, where a tyrannical president (Nick Offerman) is battling the secessionist Western Forces made up of California and Texas. We follow a group of journalists (Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, Stephen McKinley Henderson) and an aspiring photographer (Cailee Spaeny) as they journey across war-torn landscape from New York City to Washington DC to interview the president.

 

Garland has been using the director’s chair to deliver films with urgent warnings to viewers since 2014; from the dangers of AI in Ex Machina (2014) to climate change in Annihilation (2018) and the toxicity of the patriarchy in Men (2022). Civil War continues the trend, regarding our normalization of violence and the rise of increasingly irreconcilable extremist ideologies.

 

Civil War focuses primarily on two photojournalists as its protagonists, Lee (Dunst) and Jessie (Spaeny). This allows Garland to circumvent the “taking sides” problem, by framing characters who’s job is to capture real images; no narration or bias can possibly be written up to spin the reality behind a photograph. This choice, along with scant context regarding the motivations of both warring sides, is a reason many viewers will leave Civil War frustrated and disappointed. In our current time of instant opinionating on any and every subject, not being able to discern and take sides leaves us uncomfortable. During one scene, journalist Joel (Moura) asks a soldier “which side are you fighting for?” and is left bewildered when answered “no one, I’m just shooting those guys.” This is the point Garland makes; it doesn’t matter which side is right, in the end violence leads only to destruction and barbarity.

 

Garland tries to frame Civil War as an apolitical anti-bellicose film. Through young Jessie’s eyes, Garland traumatizes viewers with a great use of sound editing, cranking the volume on every gunshot and helicopter whir, assaulting viewers with cacophony and brutality. Violent imagery is depicted mercilessly onscreen, intercut with jolly music queues. This latter choice is a brilliant way to illustrate how easily we glorify and normalize brutality, brushing it off as a simple quotidian action.

 

Civil War is more of a rural road film than a full-fledged war picture. This helps keep the story grounded, focusing on characters. This is most evident in the evolution of Jessie, transformed from a naïve photographer into a thrill-seeking daredevil. Spaeny’s performance illustrates the granular change in her arc and demonstrates why she is one of the fastest rising talents of her acting generation. Dunst, as the more weathered wartime photographer, is equally as captivating in a more internalized performance. Hers is the face of someone who has seen countless atrocities, and while she carries out her job of recording it all, flickers of pain sow themselves with every blow and death she witnesses.

 

The picaresque road structure of Civil War does lead to some disjointed and convenient scenarios for commentary, which cause the film to lose immersion. Some of these side-tracks lose focus of the granular dramatic story to hammer home a separate point on political passivity or the undercurrent of capitalism. A tighter and more focused structure would have let Civil War bleed more intimately into viewers, it instead remains a rather effective, but cold commentary on violence and polarization.

 

In the end, Civil War is an ambitious and chilling watch that will leave many viewers uncomfortable for a variety of reasons, be it its violent imagery, the lack of political context, or its scary potential of being prescient.

8.3/10

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About Young Critic

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I've been writing on different version of this website since February of 2013. I originally founded the website in a film-buff phase in high school, but it has since continued through college and into my adult life. Young Critic may be getting older, but the love and passion for film is forever young. 

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