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MOVIE REVIEW: The Dis-united States of America; a review of ‘Civil war’

This is a brave and demanding film. Much like the journalists in the movie, we are being made to move, to act, to feel. If it’s true that Garland is done with directing movies, then it’s a powerful way to end his directing career. It’s a triumph in every aspect.

No stranger to the genre of science fiction, novelist, screenwriter, and director Alex Garland has been imagining the dark side of humanity in extreme conditions. In his screenplays for ‘28 Days Later’ and ‘Sunshine’ as well as his second directorial outing ‘Annihilation’ his movies have always raised a mirror to humanity and showed it for its ugliness when the pressure starts to kick in.

While his latest film is a dystopian science fiction imagining of an America in the midst of the second civil war, some articles quote him as saying it will be his last directorial effort as he plans to concentrate solely on writing. Despite this, the film operates very much in the contemporary mode. There are no zombies here like in ‘28 Days Later’ or aliens like in ‘Annihilation’ or AI like in the excellent ‘Ex Machina.’ No, this film is set in a future where America is at war with itself, a third term president-turned-dictator is battling the military might of secessionist states. There is no hi-tech equipment here. This is just a prediction of things to come based on an artist’s interpretation of where the United States of America is going if it does not fix itself any time soon.

Civil War’ follows four journalists as they make the trip from a war-torn New York down to Washington DC where they hope to interview the President. The group is led by Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst), a renowned war photojournalist, followed by the journalist Joel (Wagner Moura). They are joined by the senior journalist Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), a sort of mentor for the two. Rounding up the cast is Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), a young photojournalist who looks up to Lee as her “hero.”

The trip to the nation’s capital is wrought with danger and against her better judgment, Lee becomes a sort of mentor to the inexperienced Jessie. The weariness and jadedness that Dunst encapsulates into her portrayal of Lee Smith really sells the rich and vivid imagery that Garland adorns his film. ‘Civil War’ is wonderfully shot and the ways by which he imagines a ruined America – open air stadiums filled with graffiti, the highways filled with broken cars and families walking along the road moving their things with shopping carts, set pieces that look like universities used as a war zone – it’s such striking imagery because these are the same images used to depict wars in other countries with American soldiers coming in as heroes. In ‘Civil War,’ the tables have been turned. The majority of Hollywood movies have always positioned America as the heroes in any war story. Here, they are at war with themselves.

The film is extremely political yet, as some critics have pointed out, this is not some commentary on Trump or wokeism or any specific political issue in the United States now. Without any real backstory as to how this narrative has reached this point – that the film begins right at the zenith of the civil war – it’s a snapshot of how horrible things are going to be if the things that are tearing up the United States now isn’t fixed, this film looks more like a primer than a fictional depiction. 

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It’s an anti-war film even though it has long sequences of really riveting battle scenes. But none of it is glamorized or romanticized. It’s bloody. It’s ugly. People get hurt. People die. It’s merciless and there’s no joy in any of it. Regardless of how meticulously it is done. Through the eyes of Dunst, Spaeny, Moura, and Henderson, we see it how it really is – senseless and devastating.

But as journalists, they have to remain detached. They need to get the story so that they can get it out there so that the people can be moved to action. And that’s where the film finds its second layer because as Spaeny’s Jessie starts to find the means to detach, Dunst’s Lee Smith begins to show signs of the cracks splitting open, years of exposure to this sort of imagery tearing her up inside. It’s fantastic counterpoint performance for both actresses.

This is a brave and demanding film. It subverts years and years of Hollywood propaganda in depicting the United States as “the greatest country in the world.” It’s a fictional setting but it is pointed in the ways that it highlights all that is wrong in America today. Much like the journalists in the movie, we are being made to move, to act, to feel. If it’s true that Garland is done with directing movies, then it’s a powerful way to end his directing career. It’s a triumph in every aspect.

My Rating:



Civil War is now showing. Check screening times and buy tickets here.

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Civil War
Action, Drama, Science Fiction
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