Review: Alex Garland’s Civil War Is at Its Most Tense When It’s Most Closely Tied to Today’s Political Climate

Filmmaker Alex Garland (Ex Machina, Men, Annihilation) always finds a way to tell futuristic or fantastical stories like no other. But with his latest, Civil War, aspects of the story feel alarmingly familiar, not because they remind us of other movies but because it takes place in a near-future that seems well within the realm of possibility. That being said, the film is not about America collapsing in on itself or the reasons that might one day happen, or even what political party might spark a revolution. By the time we join the action, this war has been going for years; if anything, we appear to be near the end of the conflict with some version of the military closing in on Washington, DC, and the three-term president, played to pompous perfection by Nick Offerman.

Garland is deliberately vague about the origins of this new American civil war because it’s more the backdrop for a far more compelling story at the foreground. The dirty little secret about Civil War is that it’s a profile of and tribute to war correspondents and the mixture of brave and insane they must be in order to do their jobs, racing in lockstep with military personnel, dodging bullets and avoiding exploding shrapnel to get the perfect photo or piece of footage. A never-tougher Kirsten Dunst plays Lee, a veteran war photographer determined to take a trip from New York to DC to get an interview with the president before he’s taken out; her partner is Joel (Wagner Moura, Narcos), who seems to thrive on filming the bloodiest images he can while still surviving one suicide mission after another. And once the two decide their trip is a go, they end up taking on extra passengers in the form of Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), a much older journalist who wants to prove he can keep up with the rest of his embedded colleagues, and newbie photographer Jessie (Cailee Spaeny, Priscilla), who idolizes Lee and wants to learn her ways as they go through some truly hazardous conditions.

This version of America is not that different than where we are today; some towns they go through are ignoring the civil war around them, while other stops on this journey are controlled by factions whose loyalties seem to boil down to whether they think you’re a "real American" or not. The sequence that gets the most attention in the film's trailers involves a run-in with a group of camouflage-wearing men, led by a truly terrifying Jesse Plemons. The reason the moment is so scary is because it feels the most like the here and now, and in fact, that’s the case with most of the film—the closer to today’s reality it gets, the more tense things feel. Garland has a habit of saving his most memorable bits for the end of his films, but in the case of Civil War, it comes earlier and immediately after one of the movie’s rare lighthearted sequences.

As much as the films is Lee’s journey, if you step back and watch it from Jessie’s perspective, not only does she have the most pronounced character arc, but also she causes some of the story’s most tragic events to occur through her carelessness and youthful exuberance. Keeping in mind that you learn from your mistakes, Jessie should end up being the smartest participant of this treacherous journey by the end of the movie, but doesn’t actually seem to be the case. This truth is both frustrating and believable.

As much as Civil War builds to a final (and beautifully staged) showdown at the White House, that sequence isn’t the most dramatic, despite the hail of bullets and copious amounts of yelling and screaming. What makes the battle work is watching the journalists bob and weave among the rebel soldiers who seem happy to have their exploits documented but realize that can’t happen if the reporters get killed, adding a layer of tension to the proceedings. I like the idea that Garland is looking to defend and spotlight the place of war correspondents in the news-gathering collective, and this film tells their story without turning them into superheroes or soldiers themselves. Each stop on their specific odyssey is harrowing and reveals a different aspect to the work they do while it informs us what they ought not to do. I found the entire experience devastating and fascinating.

The film is now playing in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.