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Civil War ★★★★



Released: 12th April 2024

Director: Alex Garland

Starring: Cailee Spaeny, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons

Marking the fourth directorial feature by British filmmaker Alex Garland, Civil War focuses on a team of journalists following the Second American Civil War. Caught between the American government and the Texas and California-led ‘Western Forces’, the journalists – including photojournalist Lee (Kirsten Dunst) and photographer Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) – venture on a risky mission amid a dystopian dictatorship and a flurry of war crimes.

When the film opens, the US President (Nick Offerman) is practising a speech but it is clear that he doesn’t believe his words, hinting that he doesn’t know the full extent of the conflict in his own country. This underlying doubt unsettles the foundation of the film’s prominent conflict as there is an evident lack of context about the division of the country, over-relying on the viewer’s awareness of current socio-political climates to better understand the fragmentation in Garland’s USA. Therefore, Civil War suffers from a lack of clarity – each group of characters – the government, the Western forces and even survivalists – have their own vendetta, so anyone can be considered an enemy.  However, it effectively steps away from recent modern war films such as The Hurt Locker and Hacksaw Ridge that mostly follow American forces to offer a different direction via a small team of journalists, led by Lee.

In this latest effort. Garland raises a debate as to whether America – a country that is renowned for its political unrest and differing stances on gun control – can survive a Second Civil War. But ‘Make America Great’ is not the tagline for this drama. Instead, the filmmaker puts the emotional turmoil of political conflict seen worldwide firmly onto the doorstep of Americans, exposing the distinct division among its citizens and how they react to a prominent conflict when they are caught in the crossfire. Not even the film’s occasional scenes of serenity within the American countryside – with one quiet town bringing a fleeting yet unfamiliar semblance of normality – can dilute the terror of witnessing how one of the world’s most powerful nations crumbles under endless brutality. Ranging from bombs in crowded areas, to a nerve-wracking scene involving a sniper at an abandoned Santa’s Grotto.

This is where Civil War’s core cast comes in. War photographer Lee, along with journalists Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and Joel (Wagner Moura), decide to travel to Washington DC – a notable no man’s land for journalists – to get a face-to-face with the president. Their already crazy mission becomes even riskier when they are quickly joined by Jessy, a fresh-faced photographer who wants to be a prolific photojournalist. On the road, the group aims to impartially cover the conflict. Still, even away from the battlefield, they are constantly putting their lives at risk as they are confronted by destruction, gunfire and survivalists who have no qualms about shooting someone slightly un-American, epitomised by Jesse Plemons’ chilling performance. As a result, Garland shines a debatable light on America’s fragile state while weaving layers of tension that not only heightens the madness of their mission but emphasises their tenacity and dedication to the group’s role as journalists.

Dunst’s tentative performance as the hardened Lee is quietly stunning, expressing a coldness that shows her experience with war-ridden environments. While her focus hints at a lofty sense of professionalism, she conveys a gentle maternal instinct towards Jessy, allowing both Dunst and Spaeny to form the film’s emotional core. Spaeny herself follows her star-making performance from Priscilla as Jessy, delivering a sense of immaturity that betrays her naivety about the war with a notable scene involving some armed racists being an anxiety-inducing reality check. Sammy and Joel offer either enthusiasm or quiet reflection about the war but are ultimately shaken by the hostility of their people and the self-destruction of their home country.

While Civil War lacks cohesion in its narrative, it compensates by bringing an enthralling spectacle. Combined with Rob Hardy’s immersive cinematography, Garland’s refined visual style captures the vast scale of the conflict, whether it is under heavy gunfire or tense interactions with armed hostiles. In addition, he accommodates carefree moments within his screenplay to emphasise the film’s sentimental notes, with considerate and occasionally thought-provoking dialogue highlighting the emotional turmoil of war. 

Unlike adrenaline-fuelled war films, Civil War will stir profound conversations about the necessity of conflict. Although it has holes in its narrative, the smart dialogue and set pieces reinforce Alex Garland’s intense yet dazzling drama while showcasing solid character-driven performances.

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