Review: Civil War

Neutral territory with underwhelming “shock” tactics.

In the near future, the United States of America is gripped in a state of modern civil war. A group of four press journalists and photographers travel across the eastern states to reach the capital for a story. But the transformed landscape and citizens will not make this easy…

Director Alex Garland is considered a visionary writer/director, with works such as 28 Days Later, Annihilation, Ex Machina, and Sunshine. However 2022’s Men was little to be desired. Civil War is still fiction, but the trappings are more real than most of Garland’s usual flair.
Starring Kirsten Dunst, Cailee Spaeny, Wagner Moura, and Stephen McKinley Henderson, the film suggests a countrywide “what if” scenario through the perspective of war photographers.

The film is quite underwhelming.

We open with the US President giving a speech, a speech intercut with archive footage of urban chaos and carnage. The speech is subtly vague as to what is happening, but no less draped in threat. So is set the mood of the entire film.
Indeed, Civil War‘s entire power is within its premise. What would it be like if the American states became fully politically divided again? It is a scary premise. Especially with what we’ve seen in recent years; one cannot separate this film’s visuals from the footage of Capitol Hill being overwhelmed by rioters in 2021. The film is clearly inspired by this.

Kirsten Dunst and Cailee Spaeny in Civil War

But our story’s perspective is a narrow one; we follow the journey of war photographers during this time. The photographers themselves, especially the steely-eyed Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst) see themselves as neutral participants. Vessels that record the events as they happen. There’s no room for politics or emotions when you are so close to death.
The film’s neutrality is front and centre. America, as we know it, is politically split in two, and while the real civil war is very well documented and explained, this fictional civil war has no explanation up front. This will likely bother some audiences expecting a blow-by-blow explanation, perhaps expecting the “shock” value to come from the film’s own political leanings.
But it does not do this, and it is probably for the better. The neutrality of the perspective and the neutrality of the story-telling allows for everyone to feel the same discomfort. Is this left- or right-wing politics at fault? Who is at fault? All we know for sure is that the “central” states are fighting against the “Western Forces”, which is a new coalition between California and Texas. Two states of differing political views, adding to the neutrality. “Western” Forces, resoundingly not “southern”, to avoid any comparisons to historical events.

Kirsten Dunst and co in Civil War

Ultimately, this absence of political leanings and neutral atmosphere, means our characters travel through barren, empty landscapes. Highways that are riddled with abandoned cars, burning forests, makeshift shelters housing hundreds of people. Or they encounter “events”. A shoot-out. Another shoot-out. A particularly grim scene with actor Jesse Plemons being thoroughly unpleasant.
One is reminded more of 28 Days Later or any other post-apocalyptic setting. The dialogue between characters is deliberately shallow and vague, reminding of Gareth Edwards’s Monsters from 2010. No one has political views, in this intensely politically-driven setting.

This unbiased storytelling leads audiences into evaluating what is left: storytelling. Unfortunately, the storytelling for the characters is predictable. The pacing is very similar to Garland’s 28 Days Later, and predicting which character will make it through or not is quite easy.

Of course, Garland always does a good job in delivering atmosphere in his films. Civil War is no different. The film is not a words-per-minute experience; it is a moody and quiet affair. If you are familiar with the director’s work, it shouldn’t come as a surprise.
The performances are good as well. Kirsten Dunst is excellent as a veteran war photographer with the thousand-mile stare and a dead-to-the-world attitude. It is good to see her in such a compelling role, rather than just a screaming damsel.

But the film doesn’t grab anyone who has seen this sort of thing before. As for its “shock” value, it is purely shocking due to its proximity to real-life events, rather than by its efforts alone.

2 out of 5 stars

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