17 Apr 2024

Review: Civil War

From At The Movies, 7:00 pm on 17 April 2024

Alex Garland’s film Civil War has caused ructions in the United States because it offers no explanations of how the war in question came about, or any way to rectify one.  

It’s just there, in the same way the incurable virus was there in zombie movie 28 Days Later, or the seemingly sentient robot in Ex Machina – both Garland scripts.

Civil War is mostly about the people covering it. The war itself was an uprising - or a series of uprisings - among people rebelling when a President refused to step down. 

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Photo: DNA Films

Unlike the last civil war, it’s not simple blue uniforms versus grey ones. Some of the combatants don’t even wear uniforms, which leads to confusion.

The film opens on the President, a shifty Nick Offerman, claiming total victory over the Western Force and the Florida Alliance. 

And he’s the President. Who’s going to contradict him? Certainly not the media.

Most journalists are embedded with various armies, only reporting what they’re allowed to see.   

But a few independent correspondents prefer to make their own way, trying to cover all sides.

Meet Lee and Joel – highly experienced photojournalists from wars all round the world, and now shocked to find themselves plying their trade at home.  

They’re played by Kirsten Dunst and Brazilian star Wagner Moura.   We pick them up heading to what looks like the war’s endgame at the capital.

On the way they agree to give a lift to old print journalist Sammy – veteran character actor Stephen McKinley Henderson.   

And against Lee’s better judgement, Joel invites rookie photographer Jessie - Priscilla star Cailee Spaeny – along for the ride too.

Most of the movie is essentially four people in a truck, going through hell. Civil War asks the question pretty much every war film asks; ‘How did we get here?’ And it also asks, ‘What’s the job of a reporter anyway?’ Is it to make sense of what they’re seeing? Is it to do something about it? Turns out it’s neither of those things.

The point is to show what’s going on, that’s all, according to hard-bitten Lee.   

And this is mostly Lee’s story. Not old hand Sammy, who’s seen too much to trust anyone, or wide-eyed Jessie, who hasn’t seen anything much and is in for a lot of nasty surprises.

The closest thing to an old-fashioned war hero in the group is gung-ho Joel. He’s the first into action, he’s the one having the most fun, because for him it’s still a game. 

He’s following the story; he goes into danger because that’s where the best shots are.

Civil War taps into all those war-stories from the frontlines of faraway places - Vietnam, Afghanistan, the Middle East and Ukraine. But we’re used to not being able to make sense of foreign wars.  

Casual brutality at home is something else again.

What I’ve not mentioned yet is how good Civil War is. For a start it’s about characters.  It takes those characters somewhere interesting.   It’s no-fingernails-left exciting. The music is great. And the acting is great - I’ve certainly never seen Dunst as good as this.

Did I say it’s also about something? Not in the way that films like Oppenheimer – and even Barbie for that matter – are about something, with characters getting up on soap boxes and making statements.  

Civil War, like a good journalist, shows you, and then lets you draw a few conclusions.

Above all, it’s got two things in common with all my favourite films.   First, it’s the right length – I’d say a tight 100 minutes or so.  

And it’s got a great ironic ending. This is, after all, a story about chasing a story, and needing a good quote at the end. 

All civil wars are summed up in the final minutes of this film – the quote, the picture. And the message, as Lee said right at the start, is always ‘Don’t do this.’

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