Civil War – Movie Review

In Alex Garland’s Civil War, the audience is parachuted into an unfolding situation in media res. But what back story do we really need? While it would have been cool to see some world building and the events that brought us to where we are at the start of the film, it could also be argued that we already know this information. We are currently living in a potential path to these events (I’m not American, but Canadian discourse isn’t in a much better place).

What we do know is that Washington DC is about to fall to the Western Forces, armed rebels consisting of militia from Texas and California. As the movie unfolds, we get hints that the President has taken a heel turn, forcing a third term and dropping airstrikes on American citizens.

The film itself is fascinating in this regard, because on the surface, it’s incredibly apolitical for a movie about a 21st century American Civil War. Neither the film, nor any of its characters, offer any political sentiments. You often can’t even tell which soldiers are which — they all look the same (in a good way – you’re dropped in with the characters and they don’t always know what’s happening). From a blockbuster standpoint, it’s a movie that won’t offend either side of the political spectrum. However, unless my own bias is showing too much, I think this is a mask. The movie is definitely anti-fascist and President Nick Offerman has more than shades of Trump.

The story follows a group of journalists that are working their way to DC (where journalists are shot on sight) in hopes of interviewing and photographing President Offerman before the Western Forces roll in. Kirsten Dunst hands in an incredibly strong performance as Lee, a well-known war photographer who is suffering from PTSD. She partners with a few people; a journalist named Joel, played by Wagner Moura (a poor man’s Pedro Pascal?), an older mentor journalist named Sammy, played by the amazing Steven McKinley Henderson, and a spunky young wannabe photographer named Jessie, Priscilla’s Caliee Spaeny. Dunst’s real-life husband, Jesse Plemons, steals a harrowing scene as a soldier they encounter on the road.

I’ve always had a bit of a hard go with Alex Garland. He tells the kinds of stories that I enjoy, but I don’t always love his execution. Even with Ex Machina, there’s a lot I liked about the movie but a lot that didn’t resonate with me. Civil War is a very strong movie, but not without its flaws.

Probably the biggest issue is that there’s very little character building. You follow these people around for a whole movie but you learn very little about why any of them are there or who they truly are. PTSD is not a character. Why does Joel get such a rush out of the action? Why does he think the President will even talk to them (Sammy calls it a suicide mission). Why does Jessie want to be a war photographer? Why does she push past her initial harrowing experiences to get further out on the edge? Was Lee suffering from PTSD before the events of the film?

While I do like the immediacy of the story, it feels a little slow for the first half or so. It’s never dull and there are always good action scenes that pop up, but the core group hangs out, chit chatting a lot. Normally, this would serve to build the characters, but it doesn’t here. So why spend so much time on these scenes if the movie is more interested in the visceral than the people inhabiting the movie?

As well, sometimes their actions don’t make sense; Jessie is all over the place. Sometimes she’s gung ho to earn the respect of the group, sometimes she’s scared out of her wits, and sometimes she’s super brave or making dumb, impulsive decisions that get people killed. Of course, being in a war zone can make someone erratic, but as a movie character, we need at least a core person to juxtapose these moments with. How do we know whether she’s acting out of character or not if we don’t know who she really is?

Complaining aside, the action and tension in the movie is incredible. It feels gritty and realistic. It’s not The Rock jumping heroically from a skyscraper — it’s a suicide bomber dashing in and you have seconds to duck. It’s bullets whizzing past your head as you crouch alongside a tank. It’s a legion of battle choppers cresting on the horizon towards the enemy. It’s exciting and visceral, while being so well-staged that it’s geographically easy to follow. And it all comes together amazingly well in the third act as we see the final push into DC.

This may be my favourite Alex Garland film (I’d say so far, but he says this will be his last film). Civil War is more than an action movie — it’s a missive, a warning, a wake up call to America.

Remember when you saw Children of Men in 2006 and it seemed like a freaky transmission from ten minutes in the future? But when you watched it again in 2022 it seemed like a regular Tuesday? Civil War feels like it could be taking place this time next year. If we continue to allow social media and politics to sew such deep and unempathetic division, it’s quite easily conceivable that this movie could be our outcome. And for any of its flaws, that’s what makes Civil War powerful, poignant, and scary as hell.

Craig Silliphant

Craig Silliphant is a D-level celebrity with delusions of grandeur. A writer, editor, critic, creative director, broadcaster, and occasional filmmaker, his thoughts have appeared on radio, television, in print, and on the web. He is a juror on the Polaris Music Prize and the Juno Awards. He has written two books; a non-fiction book about Saskatoon's music scene, Exile Off Main St, and a book of short stories called Nothing You Do Matters. He's a husband and father who loves living in Saskatoon. He has horrible night terrors and apocalyptic dreams.

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