Review: ‘Civil War’

Alex Garland's Nightmare Look At The Fall Of America Is Beautiful, Haunting, And A Must-See

I think, going into Alex Garland’s Civil War, all of us have some idea of what sparked the idea in his brain. Our country has never been more divided than it is right now. The previous occupant of the White House refused to peacefully transition his ass out of office, and has routinely fired up his well-armed supporters with talk of a “bloodbath” against his political rivals. But what would it look like if a nationwide violent outbreak were to actually occur?

Putting out a movie like Civil War would be controversial under any circumstance, but during an election year? You’re just asking to be a frequent topic of discussion on The Five or the Greg Gutfeld show. But here’s the thing about Civil War: it’s mostly apolitical.  As beautiful and haunting a spectacle as it is, it’s also frustrating for keeping the reasons behind such a civil war unspoken. Perhaps Garland wants us to heap our ideologies and prejudices onto the straight-forward narrative, which unfolds like a road trip journey in an episode of The Walking Dead.

The real answer is that Garland wants Civil War to appeal to as many people as possible, and to not be such an easy punching bag for defensive Republicans. Personally, I prefer a filmmaker who is unafraid to piss people off, but I also respect Garland for weaving in a story about the importance of courageous journalism at times like we’re experiencing now.

Set in the near future, America as we know it has totally collapsed. California and Texas have seceded, forming the Western Alliance. They stand against a dictatorial President, ironically played by Nick Offerman, who in his third term is boasting about the historical nature of his military’s victory over the rebels. There’s an obvious Trumpiness in the way he speaks, his mannerisms, his use of superlatives to pump up obvious lies. The truth on the ground is that he is losing, and is probably days away from being captured and thrown out of office.

Kirsten Dunst is Lee, a legendary war photographer who has seen so much death it haunts her every time she shuts her eyes. It’s clear from her deadening expression that she never thought she’d see those wars brought home, and that she’s seen enough of the worst mankind has to offer. Wagner Moura of Narcos fame plays adrenaline junkie journalist Joel, with the great Stephen McKinley Henderson as Sammy, an aging veteran who is both a friend and mentor to them both. Cailee Spaeny is Jessie, a young upstart photographer following in Lee’s footsteps. She’s hungry, dangerously so, and talks her way into joining Lee and the others on a dangerous trek into Washington, DC for a hopeful interview with the POTUS.

Garland takes on a winding, twisting journey through the fall of an empire, with cars piled up on the roads, dead bodies littering the streets, and virtually every building on fire. A simple stop at a gas station not only confirms that American money is suddenly less valuable than Canadian, but that you might pay for that fuel with your life. What are your options, though, when the enemy is virtually impossible to spot because they could literally be your neighbors? The country has turned into a place where people are willing to kill others, including friends and family, simply for believing something different than they do. Trust me, those times are not so different from right now, and it’s chilling.

Civil War is presented from the perspective of journalists, who are by nature dispassionate observers. For much of the film, Lee sets herself apart from the incredible violence and cruelty that unfolds feet away from her. She doesn’t appear to live for the action the way Joel does, but to document these atrocities as a means of preventing them. “Every time I survived the war zone and sent the photo home, I thought I was sending a warning. And here we are,” Lee admits, exhausted. The arrival of Jessie begins to change her view, though, seeing a lot of herself in the young upstart. Some will find Jessie annoying but her presence is crucial in showing the evolution of a war journo. After a traumatizing introduction to the reality of war, she gets a taste for the adrenaline and is soon weaving in and out of danger, often to the detriment of the military forces they are covering. Garland is fascinated by the role of the press, and their commitment to it at the cost of their very souls. But what’s interesting is that he also seems to be snubbing his nose at their effectiveness. Entire towns of people are perfectly happy pretending the war isn’t happening, and even Lee’s parents have preferred to sit it out on their farm.

Civil War unfolds like a surreal nightmare, one in which the chaos is often accentuated by a strange beauty. Getting pinned down by a deadly sniper at a Christmas theme park is one such bizarre occurrence. Garland and cinematographer Rob Hardy maximize the disassociation with odd musical cues. De La Soul’s “Say No Go” pumps as the group follows a rebel faction into blistering battle, death and destruction everywhere. Meanwhile, the smoke-filled dystopia can’t fully disguise the gorgeous shots of the countryside sweeping past the car window, the sun barely peeking through the haze. Promos have teased a climactic conflict at the nation’s capital, with iconic monuments battered by missile fire, helicopters swooping down on the White House. Nothing can quite prepare you for the Hellish, visceral quality of it. But that’s one of the many points that Garland is trying to make with Civil War. Political extremists throw around words of violence a lot, too easily it seems. So much so that even those who aren’t on the furthest edge of their political beliefs now see violence as a normal part of discourse. But when the bloodshed hits your neighborhood, when the death is on your street, it will consume everyone. If this is truly Garland’s last movie as a director, turning his attention back fully into screenwriting, then he has made one Hell of a final statement.

Civil War is open in theaters now.


Civil War
Travis Hopson has been reviewing movies before he even knew there was such a thing. Having grown up on a combination of bad '80s movies, pro wrestling, comic books, and hip-hop, Travis is uniquely positioned to geek out on just about everything under the sun. A vampire who walks during the day and refuses to sleep, Travis is the co-creator and lead writer for Punch Drunk Critics. He is also a contributor to Good Morning Washington, WBAL Morning News, and WETA Around Town. In the five minutes a day he's not working, Travis is also a voice actor, podcaster, and Twitch gamer. Travis is a voting member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and Late Night programmer for the Lakefront Film Festival.
review-civil-warI think, going into Alex Garland's Civil War, all of us have some idea of what sparked the idea in his brain. Our country has never been more divided than it is right now. The previous occupant of the White House refused to peacefully...