Monday, May 20, 2024

“CIVIL WAR”

THE STORY – In a dystopian future America, a team of military-embedded journalists races against time to reach Washington, D.C., before rebel factions descend upon the White House.

THE CAST – Kirsten Dunst, Cailee Spaeny, Wagner Moura, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Nick Offerman, Sonoya Mizuno & Jesse Plemons

THE TEAM – Alex Garland (Director/Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 109 Minutes


It’s fair to say Alex Garland had written some pretty good films before he ever stepped into the director’s chair. With his debut directorial feature “Ex Machina” and follow-up “Annihilation,” Garland quickly rose to the top of the list of contemporary filmmakers who easily earned anticipation for whatever their next project would be. Then, that feeling somewhat waivered a couple of years ago with his 2022 film “Men.” After feeling disappointed with that film, who knew what Garland would make next, especially after him publicly stating disinterest in remaining behind the camera as a director? So it was intriguing to hear that his fourth feature would be a mid-budget war film distributed by A24. The takes began to fly once the trailer came out, but it looked intriguing and was certainly hitting close to home for Americans dealing with an election this year. Whenever non-Americans begin to tackle subject matter about the United States, you either get something as brilliant as the HBO series “Succession” or you get the bit in “Elvis” where he’s portrayed as some significant ally to the civil rights movement (yeah, the guy who was clamoring to be an honorary member of the F.B.I). Either way, people were already generating discourse without seeing the film when they should’ve been far more interested in seeing Garland make a modern-day war film made to be seen on IMAX screens. It turns out “Civil War” is disappointingly just a simple picture and the inevitable conversations around it weren’t warranted for a movie without anything worthwhile.

“Civil War” follows two experienced war journalists who have spent considerable time documenting the ongoing conflict in the United States that has split the nation. Lee (played by Kirsten Dunst) and Joel (played by Wagner Moura) decide their next step is to embark on Washington, D.C., at the heart of the country’s conflict. Time is not on their side as they aim to interview the President before the Western Forces (the coalition of California and Texas, who have seceded from the rest of the country) make their way to the capitol. The two journalists, alongside an earnest young war correspondent named Jessie (played by Caliee Spaeny) and long-time veteran Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), tag along as they venture on their perilous road trip. Together, the four go deeper through the war-torn country and see how the seeds of division have decimated society in various ways.

Garland intentionally and “carefully” chose to frame this story through the perspective of these journalists. It’s a film dedicated to the importance of journalism and how admirable of a profession it is (especially with how views on American media have been dragged through the mud in the past eight years). Everyone among the core four cast members is excellent, getting equal moments to shine. It’s delightful to see how someone as underrated as Stephen McKinley Henderson has received a meaty role he can knock out of the park. His character acts as a mentor-esque figure to Lee, and he feels like he’s coming to the end of his time as a journalist. He has a chip on his shoulder and wants to prove he can keep up with everyone in this dangerous industry despite being held back by his age and physical handicap. The core dynamic of Dunst as a journalist hardened by her experiences covering war-torn areas of the globe plays well off of Spaeny, whose character has never really been in situations as grim as this. You become invested in their relationship as you see their bond grow throughout the film and how much they rub off one another. Joel is probably the least developed of the four, but Moura does a lot to elevate his character through the charming facade he exudes throughout the film.

On the surface, “Civil War” excels on a technical level, as Garland successfully creates an immersive experience for audiences. The sound work, especially the sound mixing, is thunderous and excellent, aided by an already tense atmosphere throughout the film. Viewers are exposed to various shootouts, whether they’re taking place in the hallways of the White House or the vast open plains surrounded by Christmas decorations. Regarding the direction of the action sequences, “Civil War” is firing on all cylinders. The staging of each shootout feels well-choreographed, showing that Garland has evolved as a filmmaker by expanding upon his sense of scale. But as the smoke begins to fade, what’s left is nowhere near as pertinent or lasting as the warfare surrounding it.

“Civil War” is at its best when Garland focuses on the casual divergence of sympathies towards those we once called classmates, friends, and colleagues. It’s a fascinating examination of how easily we can become alienated from one another. There’s a scene early on where our characters must stop for gas in territory that could be deemed inhospitable for the four journalists. As the scene unwinds, the tension slowly simmers, transforming into something entirely different. Audiences listen to a character who once felt part of a community and has now become an individual. Jessie, struggling to keep her emotions in check, is helplessly watching a man proudly standing in front of a display of brutality he’s partaken in. Lee, on the other hand, is unfazed and continues on with the job. In a way, Lee’s reaction might be how most audiences come out of this film feeling.

For an anti-war film, “Civil War” only regurgitates the most blanketed and repurposed commentary that war is not good. It doesn’t have the same bite as films that have come before. For example, “Come and See” has been stated by Garland as essential viewing to the cast and an inspiration for the project as a whole. Elem Kilmov’s grueling depiction of the atrocities by Nazi occupation in Belarus is considered by many to be one of the “definitive” anti-war films ever made. It’s certainly big shoes to fill and hard to measure up to, especially when, in comparison, “Civil War” has nothing substantial to say. The horrors depicted on the screen that derived from this civil war are relatively tame. The worst thing depicted is what results as the culmination of the sequence involving a terrifying Jesse Plemons (who is brilliant in just a few minutes he’s in). Besides reminding you of the possibility of what could result from the hypothetical severance of ideological understanding, what’s shown can never match compared to recreations of actual atrocities from history.

Garland’s deliberate avoidance of going to the semantics of the origins of the civil war itself only works when it’s convenient. While there’s mention of actions made by the President (played by Nick Offerman) that would inspire citizens to detach from the rest of the country, the film isn’t interested in bogging down audiences with a detailed account of what states are comprising the self-proclaimed Western Forces or any other specifics. Garland wants to have his cake and eat it, too, muddling his attempt to develop a character piece while also making viewers a purveyor of this situation almost as if it were a documentary. It’s no wonder why plenty of audiences view the film coming off as apolitical. “Civil War” is not genuinely apolitical, but that’s also unrealistic because the concept of war is inherently motivated by politics.

Also, Garland himself has come off and said the film is taking a stand on specific issues. Whether that’s done successfully is up for debate. Also, for the record, he doesn’t need his film to hammer in a specific political message or identity. The angle he wanted to take with this film is apparent, even if it doesn’t fully land. Garland’s ambivalence feels akin to that of the recent films by Aaron Sorkin, minus the intentionally misguided centrism that the later filmmaker mentioned has brandished throughout his career. This is evidently a product of something created during the conclusion of the Trump era (and playing into the fear of its possible resurgence). It seems at this point with “Civil War,” there will be those who are moved by it and will defend it till their last breath. Others will rag on it as something that shouldn’t be made at a potentially fragile time like the current state of American politics. Frankly, the film mostly rides that sweet spot in the middle. Who knows? Maybe “Civil War” will age gracefully as time passes and tensions aren’t so high in real life. For now, it’s just an incredibly tense, horrifying, yet glossed-over anti-war flick that’s all bark and no bite.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - The cast's Great performances are bolstered by Garland's dedication to creating an immersive and tense experience that will envelop viewers.

THE BAD - Beneath the surface, "Civil War" doesn't say much about anything at all.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - Best Sound

THE FINAL SCORE - 6/10

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Giovanni Lago
Giovanni Lago
Devoted believer in all things cinema and television. Awards Season obsessive and aspiring filmmaker.

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>The cast's Great performances are bolstered by Garland's dedication to creating an immersive and tense experience that will envelop viewers.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>Beneath the surface, "Civil War" doesn't say much about anything at all.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b><a href="/oscar-predictions-best-sound/">Best Sound</a><br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>6/10<br><br>"CIVIL WAR"