Review: 'Civil War' or Exiles in Splitsville

Kurt Loder on

War is hell. Everybody knows that. Not just combat veterans who've experienced the thrill of howling rounds kicking up dirt in their faces and dropping fellow soldiers in lifeless heaps on the ground, but home-front civilians, too, absorbing the horror of battle through the mimicry of war movies ("Saving Private Ryan," let's say) and TV series ("Band of Brothers," maybe). Although "Civil War," the new film by writer-director Alex Garland, stands apart from the traditional bombs-and-bullets war picture, some early reviewers have seen it as being one anyway. ("Hands down the best combat ever put on film.") As an admirer of the movie, I would say such characterizations are more aspirational than actually descriptive, and wonder if casual viewers, revved up for a traditional guts-and-glory action flick, might not in the end be disappointed by this one and possibly put in a bad-mouthing mood.

That would be a shame, because with "Civil War," Garland, who normally specializes in one-of-a-kind sci-fi fantasy films ("Ex Machina," "Annihilation," the Hulu miniseries "Devs"), is contemplating the way that nations drift into wars -- and what it might be like if the frothingly polarized USA wound up doing so. The picture doesn't stint on gunfire and pyrotechnics, but its mind is really somewhere else.

The opening sets the stage with tidy precision. We see the unpopular U.S. president (Nick Offerman) addressing the country in a TV speech. Knowing that he's widely detested (he has strong-armed a third term in office, mounted airstrikes on American citizens and basically become a dictator), he's more than a little nervous. Nineteen states have seceded from the Union and the citizens of Florida, Texas and California have taken up arms. The president is trying to calm further unrest with empty blather about a recent battlefield success. ("Some are already calling it the greatest victory in the history of military campaigns.")

Out on the streets of New York, a small group of seasoned reporters has learned that hordes of secessionists are headed for Washington, D.C., to try to overthrow the government. The journos have decided to get there first, find the president and hold his feet to the fire. (He hasn't held a press conference in 14 months.) The group is a useful mix for illuminating what's happening in the story. Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst), a longtime photojournalist, is teamed with a smoothly capable colleague named Joel (Wagner Moura, of "Narcos"), an affable oldtimer called Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and a 23-year-old whippersnapper named Jessie (Cailee Spaeny, of "Priscilla," who comes fully into her own here). Jessie idolizes Lee and wants to be a photojournalist just like her. But as the two reporters start making their way to Washington through a country they now barely recognize, we wonder what it will cost her to achieve her dream.

Although the besieged government claims that it's encountering only "pockets of resistance" in its campaign to impose order on the country, Lee and her colleagues see that this is a lie. Driving their white PRESS van down highways filled with trashed vehicles, they are confronted with miles of grisly sights -- people hanged from bridges and being prepared for execution. And no one seems to care -- the unifying idea of American fellow feeling has finally evaporated. Coming upon a small rural town, the press group pulls up in front of a clothing store; Joel asks a woman inside why she's open for business with a civil war raging from coast to coast. "We just try to stay out of it," the woman says. Jessie understands this self-defensive attitude: her father, she says, is probably sitting on his front porch back in Missouri, "pretending none of this is happening."


The scariest character in the picture -- although he's only in it for a matter of minutes -- is a cold and clearly unbalanced soldier wearing camo fatigues and pink shades, and played, with relish, by Jesse Plemons. Hoping to get away from this guy, one of the journalists hopefully tells him, "We're Americans." To which the soldier menacingly responds, "What kind of Americans are you?" When he raises his hand to scratch his cheek, we see that it's dripping blood.

In a story that's basically about the bedrock importance of human values, the movie's most affecting storyline is the one linking young Jessie and seen-it-all Lee. (Dunst's character is said to be based on the legendary World War II combat photographer Lee Miller.) As they make their way through various dicey situations, Jessie watches as Lee, the total pro, continually stops to grab a close-up of someone being shot or already dying. Just part of the job, of course; but Jessie can't stop thinking about it. "Would you photograph me, if I got shot?" she asks Lee. "Whatta you think?" Lee says, without thinking twice.


Kurt Loder is the film critic for Reason Online. To find out more about Kurt Loder and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators website at www.creators.com.

Copyright 2024 Creators Syndicate, Inc.




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