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REVIEW — “Civil War”

From filmmaker Alex Garland comes Civil War, a chilling and provocative American nightmare that is as unsettlingly timely as it is frighteningly urgent.

(L-R) Kirsten Dunst. Courtesy of A24

The political war thriller is set in a near-future America after democracy collapses, states secede into fractured alliances, and a rogue president (Nick Offerman) seizes control of a divided nation, overrides the rule of law, and orders air-strikes on civilians.

(L-R) Nick Offerman. Credit: Murray Close. Courtesy of A24

The film follows four military-embedded journalists stationed in New York as they race against time to reach Washington, DC. The goal of journalist Joel (Wagner Moura) is to interview the sitting president before rebel factions descend upon the White House and execute the authoritarian P.O.S. POTUS. While Joel is behind the wheel, the group is actually led by seasoned photojournalist Lee, played by Kirsten Dunst with stone-cold, but conflicted, conviction.

(L-R) Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, Cailee Spaeny. Credit: Murray Close. Courtesy of A24

Along for the ride are aging press reporter Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and young aspiring photojournalist Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), who joins the caravan against Lee’s wishes. Ultimately, the group becomes protective of their young charge while out in the wilderness, with Lee, in particular, taking her under her wing and mentoring the talented amateur photographer on how to properly capture the horrors of war… without becoming collateral damage.

(L-R) Cailee Spaeny, Kirsten Dunst. Credit: Courtesy of A24

As the group journeys across 857 miles of divided American backroads, they encounter a dystopian wasteland of violent protests, astronomical inflation, abandoned traffic jams, bombed-out homes, military checkpoints, and unsavory characters armed to the teeth (including a more terrifying Jesse Plemons than we have ever seen). Think The Walking Dead minus the zombies.

Courtesy of A24

Along the way, each of the core characters evolve from their experiences on the road: Nervous, risk-averse Sammy finds heroism, while easy-going Joel encounters true terror. Meanwhile, desensitized, numb-to-the-violence Lee begins to let down her guard and exhibit motherly compassion for scared Jessie, who, like a moth to a flame, becomes seduced by the images of war she sees through her camera lens, brazenly throwing herself into the fray to capture the perfect shot.

(L-R) Kirsten Dunst, Cailee Spaeny. Credit: Murray Close. Courtesy of A24

Interspersing the horrific scenes of unsettling high tension and white-knuckle action are slow, contemplative moments of reflection set to music cues by artists like De La Soul and Sturgill Simpson. Either jarring or transcendent, each needle drop serves to repel you from the ugliness of war.

(L-R) Stephen McKinley Henderson. Credit: Murray Close. Courtesy of A24

Writer and director Garland goes out of his way to ignore the current state of American politics so as not to distract from the overall story. In fact, at Civil War’s recent premiere, Garland revealed that the film’s confusing pairing of real-world political opposites California and Texas as the fictional Western Alliance was done in part to conceal the film’s politics, but, more importantly, to convey his belief that Americans will ultimately put aside their different extremist political views and unite against an unconstitutional, corrupt, and fascist president who is taking over the country and killing its citizens.

Credit: Murray Close. Courtesy of A24

It is a hopeful message for a film that builds towards a climactic full-on assault on Washington D.C. that features 30 minutes of riveting, pulse-pounding war action and ends in an epic, no mercy bloodbath. Here’s hoping his Civil War story remains a work of well-written fiction and does not become our reality. 4/5

Courtesy of A24

With a running time of 1 hour, 49 minutes and rated R for violence, some bloody images and strong language, Civil War opens in theaters on April 12, 2024.

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