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Civil War Review

April 15, 2024 | Posted by Rob Stewart
Civil War Kirsten Dunst Image Credit: A24
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Civil War Review  

I simultaneously hate and also love when I am wrong about a movie.

We have all been there. We’ve gone into a new flick with either expectations sky high or deeply buried. And we walk out realizing everything we thought we were going to get was wrong. On the one hand, it can be a great feeling to know your entire anticipatory cart was just upended and that you can still be surprised! But on the other hand, I like to imagine I can get a pretty good grasp of how I will feel about a movie based on preliminary info. So… like I said… simultaneous feelings.

The new Alex Garland outing, Civil War, was a movie that took all of the emotions I thought I was going to have and just hurled them in front of a whole train of the unexpected. But more on that in the Ups and Downs!

Civil War takes place some amount of time into a second American civil war that sees the country divided up into several factions, such as the Loyalists States, the Western Forces, and the Florida Alliance. As the Western Forces bear down on Washington, D.C., two reporters are determined to make their way to the capital and interview the President prior to the Fourth of July.

After a suicide bombing in New York City, the two reporters–Joel and Lee–pick up two travel companions: the older reporter Sammy, who is something of a mentor to Lee, and the young wannabe photojournalist Jessie who idolizes Lee and her work.

Lee, played by Kirsten Dunst, is obviously a little bit more central to the plot than Joel based on the dynamics I just mentioned.

Anyway, the four pack up from New York and make the round-about trip–they have to go west across Pennsylvania and through West Virginia–towards D.C. Along the way, they see what the ravages of war have done to parts of the country, and they experience some of the horrors firsthand.


+ The movie called Civil War does something really interesting: it barely focuses on the war, the causes behind it, or the sides involved at all. Instead, the movie opts to follow Lee, Jessie, Sammy, and Joel as they make their way from New York to Washington, D.C. We see what the war is doing to the country and how it is (or, in some cases, is not) affecting various parts of America, but we don’t really see any of the war itself until the late third act.

Honestly, this is for the best. When I first saw the advertisements proclaiming that the Western Forces were the unified front of the TEXAN AND CALIFORNIAN governments, the entire premise sounded too unbelievable to get into. And then I heard that the movie is politically neutral, and my hopes for the movie being relevant were sunk. In the current political climate where everything is so vitriolic, why would you make a movie about a civil war and then make it apolitical? What’s the point, if not to have something to say?

Well the point is the A+ character work and the wartime setting that isn’t about the war itself, but rather about what it does to people. Setting things up as Alex Garland had would be disastrous if we were expected to care about the actual civil war. But it’s all a backdrop to these highly interesting and engaging characters and Garland’s master level filmmaking.

So that one is on me. I got my expectations down because I was anticipating something lesser out of Garland. But he knew what he was doing.

+ A lot of the directorial choices are just A+ decision-making in this one. We get cut-aways from the action to see the photographs that Lee and Jessie are taking. We have moments that go from deathly silent right into explosions of gunfire that shock the audience upright in their seats. A lot of the score is made up of songs that don’t apparently fit the mood, but in that genius way where the score is being used to lull the audience into a different atmosphere than what they are about to experience. It’s the juxtaposition of the music you hear against the actions you have seen.

This is Garland’s best work that I have seen from him personally. Every shot and song and character moment is very deliberate. He is at the top of his craft here, and he has made one of the best war movies of recent memory (assuming you’ll allow a movie about a fictitious war to be counted in the genre).

There is–and I won’t spoil anything more than vague details here–a death late in the film that should be more impactful than it is. It should really change the mood of the audience or the tempo of the movie, but it is just not handled particularly well. It’s shot well! But that’s about it.

It feels more like the movie is ticking boxes–“Well, we set up this death early on, so we better pay it off”–than telling that part of the story in a potent manner. It’s a shame that, for a movie that did so much right, this important death is treated as a footnote.

There’s a small bit in the third act where we get into the actual war and not just on its periphery where our protagonists have made it to Washington at the same time and the Western Forces, and for a moment we are torn away from the smaller stakes of our heroes’ lives and quest and thrown into a whole different movie where we start seeing national monuments getting blown up. It’s like Garland fell asleep for ten minutes of filming, and Roland Emmerich snuck onto the helm of his ship.

It’s not much, just a few minutes before we get back on the ground and back to the plot. And you could argue that this movie about a nation divided needed some destructive shots to further display the true violence and cost of war. But for me, it felt like for just a moment we left the brilliant filmmaking of the first two-plus acts behind and instead got HERE’S THE LINCOLN MEMORIAL GETTING BLOWED UP REAL GOOD, GUYS!

The final score: review Very Good
The 411
This far exceeded my admittedly low expectations because I severely underestimated Garland based on the premise of the movie and its trailers. This is about something far more interesting than the war itself, and that's the cost of war and how it affects real people. Civil War is a film about how we see war, how we think of war, and how war really is. And it's incredibly well made in that regard.

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Civil War, Rob Stewart