Review – Civil War

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Overview

Synopsis A journey across a dystopian future America, following a team of military-embedded journalists as they race against time to reach DC before rebel factions descend upon the White House. (IMDB)

Length 1 hour, 49 minutes

Release Date April 12, 2024

 

Rating R

Distribution A24

Directing Alex Garland

Writing Alex Garland

Composition Ben Salisbury, Geoff Barrow

Starring Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, Cailee Spaeny, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Sonoya Mizuno, Nick Offerman

Alex Garland is one of my favorite filmmakers, and I’m proud to say I had the opportunity to meet him briefly in college. It wasn’t a long conversation, as I was just a boom operator at the time. Back in 2015, I was asked to record an interview with student filmmakers when I was still attending Tribeca Flashpoint College as part of Garland’s media tour for Ex Machina. I installed a lav microphone on him, briefly spoke with him, and went our separate ways. He was highly cordial, and seeing his film weeks later left a strong impression that he was a director I needed to follow.

Unfortunately, that career is already close to finishing less than a decade later. He recently announced his desire to retire from directing, to focus on screenwriting—which he’s already shown his talent through 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go, and Dredd. While he may change his mind, he may be leaving us with a small but remarkable filmography of five projects—Ex Machina, Annihilation, Devs, Men, and Civil War.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: War-related violence (firefights, gunshot wounds, depictions of people being shot and dying). Cold-blooded execution-style deaths are depicted, with one scene showing a pile of dead bodies.
Language/Crude Humor: Some severe language throughout the film.
Drug/Alcohol References: Casual drinking and smoking.
Sexual Content: A character mentions attempting to hook up with a young woman.
Spiritual Content: Several characters wear cross necklaces.
Other Negative Content: Morally relativistic and bleak themes.
Positive Content: Themes of truth, trauma, and doing the right thing.

Review

What I love about Alex Garland’s films is that you never expect the movies to develop into what they become. You go into a movie like Men expecting a feminist horror movie and you end up getting a surprisingly balanced exploration of the way the sexes enforce power against each other. You go into Devs expecting a story about Silicon Valley corporate malevolence and discover a story about wrestling free will away from biological determinism. I’ve loved all five of his directed works for this reason. He’s an artist; one of the few contemporary filmmakers who isn’t satisfied making cheap, hacky partisan schlock. He wants to dig deeper. 

It was for this reason I’ve been excited about his newest film Civil War. Being released in an election year, the film conjured all sorts of negative thoughts going into it. It drew negative political attention from the media in the leadup to its release. Was this some sort of psyop to radicalize people? Was it going to be some schlocky warmongering message? An ode to militant antifascism or secessionism? Reactionary hatred for Trump or Biden? 

Strangely enough, it is none and all of these things. It is a film so semiotically buried in obfuscation that you can interpret it either way. It is neither a movie about the January 6 Capitol Insurrection nor overthrowing the Biden administration. It’s about something else altogether. 

The scenario jumps in media res into a years-long conflict between the US government and a secessionist military government led by Texas and California but aligned with elements of the US military. Four journalists in New York City are taking a 900-mile roundabout road trip to DC through West Virginia to circumnavigate the front lines and interview the President in his remaining days before the war is over. This results in an odyssey through the warfront, seeing how both sides of the war operate behind closed doors, learning about how civilians and displaced refugees are surviving, and struggling to stay alive. 

This scenario is absurd, unrealistic, and morally relativistic. There’s no way Texas and California could ever form an alliance. They barely tolerate each other in our world. But that’s the point. It is a near-Brechtian decision to push the audience out of basic assumptions about Left-Right politics. Both sides of the war are lying, committing war crimes, and acting as though they’re on the correct side. It doesn’t want you to valorize either side. The point is that we see parts of ourselves on both sides. Ultimately, it’s horrific. 

The core theme is about exploring detachment. Civil War isn’t so much a story about our contemporary partisan situation so much as it is a story about how common people respond to it. The war is a massive omnipresent thing like COVID and the Ukraine War. It is too big to be ignored and too painful to endure. 

Our four photo journalist characters talk about the war as something you have to view neutrally, that their job is not to intercede but to capture the truth as they understand it and let others decide. However, this process involves having to delve into the muck and endure horrors that cause them to have emotional breakdowns. Garland films the story to emphasize the dissociative states of its characters. They’re all emotionally detached because the sheer volume of horror and death they see is too much to handle. Their ambition to be impartial even gets several of them killed, but they keep moving forward.

This certainly speaks to one of the most common instincts of the moment—the desire to detach and turn off the news. It’s easy to touch grass, to put your phone down, and refuse to acknowledge the world around you. In the movie, large regions of the country operate as if nothing is happening. They don’t want to get involved. The movie doesn’t necessarily comment if this instinct is bad or good. The journalistic neutrality that is necessary to document the truth impartially is also something that gets people killed. The world will keep turning regardless of how much horror you want to let yourself endure. Trauma just ends up being a sacrifice to truth, but it doesn’t necessarily make things better.

The fact that this may be one of Garland’s last films makes it all the more tragic. While he’s planning to write more screenplays—including sequels to 28 Days Later—I can’t help but think he’s going out on a high note. Civil War has already grossed $42 million on a $50 million budget, and audiences seem relatively receptive to it. I’m glad that the last theatrically directed Alex Garland film is being well received, despite some of the trepidation going into it.

Positives

+ Solid performances
+ Excellent action scenes and direction
+ Excellent script

Negatives

- Somewhat emotionally cold experience
- Definitely not going to appeal to all viewers

The Bottom Line

Civil War is an excellent, original, and engaging film from one of the best arthouse directors working in modern Hollywood, with much to say about the way collective trauma forces people to detach and dissociate.

 

8.5

Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

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