Civil War (2024)

Kirsten Dunst plays a photojournalist caught in the crossfire of an American revolt in “Civil War.”

‘Civil War’ isn’t so much a movie as it is a warning

All my life I’ve seen images of death and destruction from war zones pumped into my living room via television. In every case, I would think, “Thank God that will never happen here – here in the good ol’ USA.” Lately, given the increasing division propagated by charlatan politicians and a malignant media, I’m no longer so sure. Less so after experiencing Alex Garland’s highly disturbing “Civil War.” It serves not just as white-knuckle entertainment, but as a vivid premonition of what we Americans are in for if we don’t start paying attention.

Suddenly, Iraq, Syria and Gaza don’t seem like such far-off places, as Garland introduces a similar palette of unspeakable brutality to our main streets, bucolic landscapes and own backyards. Trust, empathy and compassion are just quaint memories, replaced by suspicion and a kill-or-be-killed mindset. We see it through the eyes of four journalists on a mission to navigate the front lines in a planned assault on D.C. by rebel forces bent on besieging the White House like bin Laden’s fortified compound in Pakistan. Who will get the “money shot”?

First, our traveling companions – Kirsten Dunst’s Lee, Wagner Moura’s Joel, Cailee Spaeny’s Jessie and Stephen McKinley Henderson’s Sammy – must negotiate a literal minefield from Manhattan to Washington over war-torn terrain in their battle-worn white SUV. Heck, just gassing up the beast could get them killed. So, it’s little wonder that fear and cynicism accompany them on a bomb-pocked Yellow Brick Road to what’s left of Oz, if anything.

Garland, an early front-runner for writing and directing Oscar honors, consigns his characters to a living hell, particularly Jessie, the rookie war photographer who acts as conduit to a dystopian world where it’s apparent we’re not in her native Missouri anymore. It’s more like Dante’s “Inferno.” But if she has the privilege of experiencing it with her hero – and now mentor – Lee, all the better. For Lee has been in the “shit” more times than she can count. And what she’s seen through her viewfinder hasn’t been pretty. Worse, the images have failed to forewarn.

“Every time I survived a war zone, I thought I was sending a warning home: ‘Don’t do this,’” she says to Sammy, the film’s sage father figure. “But here we are.” And where we are is in the middle of a conflict waged by the Western Forces, a conjoined army consisting of Texans and Californians whose states have seceded from the union. Florida, we’re told, is on the verge of doing the same. The reasons for the rebellion aren’t clear, but a clue might be that the sitting president (Nick Offerman) is in his Constitution-defying “third term.”

The obvious inference is that he is an effigy of Donald Trump, but that’s about as close as Garland comes to taking a position on the politics of the situation. He mostly plays it straight down the middle, allowing us to fill in the blanks. Republican or Democrat, the movie will resonate no matter which side you’re on. That’s because Garland (“Ex-Machina”), along with cinematographer Rob Hardy (“Mission: Impossible – Fallout”) and production designer Caty Maxey, deliver an almost too-realistic backdrop of bomb-ravaged cities, vigilante-inflicted torture and – gulp – Christmas carnival grounds strewn with dead bodies. In front of Santa’s sleigh, no less!

That’s hardly among the most disturbing scenes. No, those come toward the end: one set beside a mass grave overseen by a truly terrifying Jesse Plemons; the other when the war encroaches upon the hallowed halls of the White House in a display that makes Jan. 6 look like a tea party. What both scenarios do is scare the living crap out of you, especially when Plemons injects deadly menace into the query, “What kind of American are you?” What kind, indeed.

The whole movie is effectively disorienting. Like, who am I supposed to root for? And that’s Garland’s point, asking us – lest we forget – if we dare risk returning to the horrors of the 1860s when the “last” civil war pitted neighbor against neighbor. He’s just as crucially concerned about journalists’ role in perhaps unwarily instigating and attempting to resolve such a nightmare. Those questions unfold within the press mobile, where tensions between Lee and Joel, a South American immigrant, clash over something as petty as whether Jessie is too young to experience events to come.

The bigger issue involves journalistic ethics, a recurring theme that intriguingly raises the question: what is a reporter’s role in a war zone; when are they expected to put down the pen and camera and come to someone’s aid; and most of all, is it OK to exploit a tragedy for an illuminating photo? Both Lee and Jessie find themselves in the latter position, and how they handle it may surprise you. It’s the same for Joel and his obsession with getting just one quote from the president before he’s potentially overthrown.

These “snap” decisions create all sorts of moral quandaries that must be dealt with under the duress of bullets whistling past your head. In that respect, “Civil War” highlights not just the importance of war correspondents, but the bravery they exhibit in a profession far more dangerous than most could imagine. Where would we be without them? In the dark and with no check on the machinations of ruthless political and military leaders, that’s where.

In many ways, Garland puts the onus on the Fourth Estate. If they don’t do their duty in seeking and reporting the truth, and nothing but the truth, the gruesomeness depicted in “Civil War” is destined to become all too real – right here, in the good ol’ USA.

Movie review

Civil War

Rated: R for strong violent content, bloody/disturbing images and language throughout

Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, Cailee Spaeny, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Jesse Plemons and Nick Offerman

Director: Alex Garland

Writer: Alex Garland

Runtime: 109 minutes

Where: In theaters (wide)

Grade: A-

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