12th Apr2024

‘Civil War’ Review

by Matthew Turner

Stars: Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, Cailee Spaeny, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Sonoya Mizuno, Nick Offerman, Jessie Plemons | Written and Directed by Alex Garland

British writer-director Alex Garland has form when it comes to depicting the apocalypse, having previously written the 2002 zombie classic 28 Days Later. With his latest film, he turns his attention to the US, revealing a country torn apart by a cleverly unspecified Civil War, observing the ensuing horror through the pointedly objective eyes of a group of embedded war photographers. By turns thrilling, terrifying and deeply moving, it’s a profoundly provocative piece of work that demands to be seen.

After a brief prologue with the US President (Nick Offerman) psyching himself up for a press briefing, we learn that present-day America is deep in the throes of a catastrophic Civil War, after the states of California and Texas both seceded from the Union and joined forces, making military advances on Washington under the banner of Western Forces or WF. Meanwhile, Florida is rumoured to be seceding too, and either joining forces with WF or setting out on their own.

With cities and towns across America reduced to active combat zones, the film follows acclaimed war photographer Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst), as she travels from New York to Washington, ostensibly to document an interview with the President by her Reuters journalist colleague Joel (Wagner Moura), but perhaps to accompany the WF forces as they breach the White House. As they set off, they’re joined by New York Times reporter Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and Jessie (Priscilla’s Cailee Spaeny), a young, aspiring photographer who idolises Lee and sweet-talks Joel into letting her tag along.

On the surface, Garland’s decision to obscure both the reasons for the conflict and the political allegiances of both factions may seem frustrating, but the result is fascinating, because it leaves the audience unable to take a side. Should we be horrified or thrilled when one side seems to be gaining the upper hand? That deliberate lack of clarity, of effectively being unable to tell the good guys from the bad guys, makes the scenes all the more disturbing and forces you to question the acts you’re witnessing.

That objectivity is also the subject of the film, to a degree, in that the journalist characters consistently strive to not take sides in order to get the job done and tell the story or get the photo. At the same time, we see the toll that the abject horrors she has dispassionately witnessed have taken on Lee, and there’s keenly felt suspense as we wait to see what the cumulative effect will be.

Garland’s direction is extremely impressive throughout, particularly in his use of imagery, juxtaposing horrific or all-too-familiar images from foreign conflicts with the bright, sunny settings of the American heartland. Occasionally, that aspect becomes almost surreal, such as when a brutal shoot-out occurs on the premises of a Santa-strewn Winter Wonderland, or when military vehicles are advancing on the streets of Washington in the nail-biting final act.

In addition to staging a series of pulse-pounding action sequences, Garland orchestrates scenes of almost unbearable tension, most notably during a genuinely terrifying scene when the journalists encounter a US soldier wearing heart-shaped sunglasses (Jesse Plemons, delivering what has to be one of the cameo performances of the year), who proceeds to calmly interrogate them with questions along the lines of, “Which kind of American are you?” and makes it clear that there will be deadly consequences for a wrong answer.

Dunst is terrific in the lead role (clearly modelled on real-life war photographer Lee Miller, who gets a name-check), bringing a palpable world-weariness to her character, but also giving her a hardened outer shell that we consistently scour for cracks. Moura is equally great, delivering the sort of effortlessly charismatic turn that would give Pedro Pascal a run for his money, while Spaeny is astonishing in an ostensibly quiet role that becomes more and more intense.

Ultimately, this is a powerful and provocative thriller that is genuinely disturbing, and all the more effective in its refusal to provide easy answers for the audience. And the fact that it’s coming out in an already fraught election year just makes it all the more terrifying.

**** 4/5

Civil War is in cinemas now.

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