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  • Writer's pictureBen Pivoz

Civil War

Lee (Kirsten Dunst) and her fellow journalists make their way through war-torn America in Civil War (Distributed by A24)

Film is, of course, a visual medium. However, more importantly than that, it is an emotional one. It uses images to create feelings of joy, sadness, anger, fear, etc. in the viewer. Writer/director Alex Garland understands this concept and uses it to powerful effect in his intense “what if” thriller Civil War. Considering how it takes place in a near future that feels terrifyingly possible, this could have come off as exploitative. A civil war fought between Americans over cultural or political beliefs has been predicted by some if we as a country don’t figure out how to find common ground. Therefore, a movie showing us deep in the middle of a violent war amongst ourselves is timely, but is it unnecessarily taking advantage of a vulnerable moment?

That is certainly what this could have been. That it isn’t is a credit to Garland’s approach to the material. He doesn’t explore how things got to this point. He doesn’t center his story on soldiers or present heroes/villains. The main characters are journalists who push themselves into the action on either side seeking a great photo and an even bigger scoop. Civil War (101 minutes, without the end credits) does not take sides because it isn’t really about right/wrong. If Garland has an opinion on the direction this country may be going in, he doesn’t share it here. Instead, this is truly a story about journalism, focusing closely on the mindset of four reporters traveling together.

If there is a single protagonist, it would be Lee (played excellently by Kirsten Dunst). She is a legend in her field due to her ability to stay calm, impartial and detached in order to get incredible photos. The story is really just a series of incidents that occur as the group travels to DC in a desperate attempt to interview the president. It is set up by Lee’s insistence on risking her life to get the story. What if she gets shot trying to get a quote (which she is told is a distinct possibility)? Well, at least she tried.

The second most important character is Jessie, a young woman who idolizes Lee and dreams of being like her. She is played with great vulnerability by Cailee Spaeny. Lee is complacent in her own work and seemingly unafraid of her own death (or perhaps merely at peace with it). Yet she is immediately protective of Jessie. Could Jessie be a good war photographer? Sure, but it isn’t worth the danger. Her presence shakes Lee out of her narrow view. Their relationship changes both women. That is definitely a strength of the movie. Sadly, the obviousness of Jessie’s arc is a bit of a weakness, even though it leads naturally to the emotional conclusion Garland is clearly aiming for.

Jessie (Cailee Spaeny)

Wagner Moura is Joel, Lee’s partner, who gets a visceral excitement from being in the action. Moura brings a lot of energy as a guy who seems more interested in the adrenaline rush than in his job. Where Lee has come to accept the risk that comes with getting the perfect shot, Joel actively seeks it out.

The last seat in the press van belongs to Sammy, an old veteran played by the wonderful character actor Stephen McKinley Henderson. He is the voice of wisdom, warning against chasing the battle and gambling your life for a picture. He is, for all intents and purposes, the end of the journey as much as Jessie is the beginning of it. Lee and Joel are somewhere in between, though how far along that line becomes clearer as things progress.

Alex Garland does a surprising thing with what could have been a cautionary action epic. He keeps it intimate and human. Yes, viewers can see the soldiers and various citizens they come across and find something topical. However, we can also find in it a story looking at the significance of the press, what they go through/put themselves through and why.

This is Garland’s fourth feature as a director. His previous three (Ex Machina, Annihilation and Men) were all very good. Civil War is completely different, yet very good in its own right. As a whole, his body of work shows a filmmaker with a strong control of message and an ability to use genre in a thrilling and timely way. Civil War may not be Garland’s best, but it is tense, thought-provoking and hard to shake.


4 out of 5



Kirsten Dunst as Lee

Cailee Spaeny as Jessie

Wagner Moura as Joel

Stephen McKinley Henderson as Sammy


Written and Directed by Alex Garland


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