The HoloFiles

REVIEW: Civil War

By George & Josh Bate

Civil War review

Twelve years since its inception, A24 has developed a reputation for artistic and unorthodox films and television shows. In many ways a counter to the products of major film studios, A24 films are unafraid to be different or strange and content being something that will not be to everyone’s taste. By definition then, A24’s films have been of a smaller scale. Whether it be Ari Aster’s Hereditary or Robert Eggers’ The Witch or Lenny Abrahamson’s Room, the independent production company characteristically commissions projects that have minimal budgets into the hands of auteur filmmakers with a singular vision. But what if A24 went bigger? What if there was an A24 film that retains the company’s penchant for the strange and artistic that simultaneously had a large budget, that featured grand action set pieces, and that doesn’t contain itself to few settings or a smaller scale? Until recently, such a film did not exist, but now there is Alex Garland and A24’s Civil War.

Civil War takes place in the near future after a civil war has erupted between an authoritarian central U.S. government and various factions, including the Western Forces, which is comprised of California and Texas. Chronicling the war is Lee Smith (played by Kirsten Dunst), a seasoned war photographer who has seen it all and whose work has taken quite the toll on her. Lee and fellow photojournalist Joel (played by Wagner Moura) wish to travel to Washington D.C. and interview the controversial president, despite his administration’s distaste for journalists and tendency to shoot them on site. Joining Lee and Joel are aspiring war photographer Jessie (played by Cailee Spaeny) and veteran reporter Sammy (played by Stephen McKinley Henderson). Together, this group of four embark on the perilous task of traveling across a war-torn U.S., a task that puts all of their lives in danger.

Civil War review

Writer/director Alex Garland’s film is situated in a fictional future crippled by a civil war and division. Foregoing any exposition, opening text, or beginning narration, Garland throws the audience into the deep end of this fictional future with a bold decision to deprive the film of much initial context. The first scene with our lead characters sees Dunst’s Lee save Spaeny’s Jessie from a suicide bombing in Brooklyn, which establishes the sense of chaos enveloping the U.S. at this time. But, beyond establishing this sense of chaos, Garland does little to orient viewers to the ins and outs of this fictional future he has created. While purposefully shrouding this world in complete ambiguity could make sense in having the audience pay attention merely to what they see on the screen and not what’s come before it, that’s not what Garland is doing. Instead, Garland opts against affording the audience complete ambiguity by sprinkling details about this world throughout with select lines of dialogue. What results is a frustrating experience in which the fictional world feels simultaneously established by the filmmaker and yet deprived of the audience. If all of the characters in the film know the political landscape and the ins and outs of this world, why deprive the audience of such clarity? Even something as simple as displaying a map of the divided country and a few lines of opening text could’ve ameliorated this issue.

Garland’s poor establishment of the fictional world in which Civil War is set contributes to a jumbled first act. The desperate desire to learn more about this world’s political situation competes with needed time and attention spent on establishing each of the members of the ensemble. It isn’t until the plot – journeying to D.C. to interview the president – kicks into gear that the film settles down. With so many moving pieces initially, it takes some time for Civil War to find its footing. But, once it does, Civil War is excellent.

Progressively getting better from scene to scene after a poor first act, Civil War turns into a palpably intense road trip film. When presenting at CinemaCon recently, Kevin Costner stated that films typically fall into one of two categories – plot films and journey films. Alex Garland’s Civil War undoubtedly falls into the category of journey movies, a fact that highlights the film’s relative relegation of plot and storytelling in favor of being an experience that delicately develops its characters and evokes strong emotions in its audience.

As the four journalists trek across the country to the White House, Civil War falls into a unique structure. The film goes scene-by-scene linearly focusing on different parts of the journalists’ journey. Each scene is given time to breathe and itself almost feels like a self-sufficient short film. The first of these scenes shows the group stop at a rural gas station surrounded by armed men. The suspense is high as it is unclear if the journalists are welcomed here and, therefore, unclear if the journalists are safe. Jessie, the youngest member of this group of four, wanders to the car wash area of this gas station and comes upon two men, who are strung up and being tortured for stealing. The scene slowly unfolds and gradually grows in intensity until its resolution, which concludes this short film of sorts. 

Civil War review

Progressing from one extraordinarily fervent scene to the next along this journey, Civil War ranks among the most intense films of all time. Once the road trip plot line begins, each scene packs an incredible and palpable intensity, the kind that rivals some of the most intense scenes of Quentin Tarantino’s career. A particular highlight is a scene featuring Jesse Plemons, which ends up being scarier than even the most frightening of horror movies. Heart-pounding, sweat-inducing scenes follow one another in Garland’s film, all culminating in a massive action set-piece unlike anything seen in an A24 film before. 

Going through each of these intense sequences are the four journalists at the heart of the film. In an interesting development, each character represents a different stage of the life span of a war photographer. Cailee Spaeney’s Jessie bubbles with curiosity and naivety, forcing her way onto the press van that will take her to the White House. Wagner Moura’s Joel, meanwhile, is at the peak of his career. Full of confidence, Joel approaches each war photography task like an adrenaline junkie. Kirsten Dunst’s Lee is further along. Lee has already made a name for herself and seen so much conflict. The war and horror she’s seen and photographed have taken a toll on her and she manifests this in her body through Dunst’s stoic performance. And, finally, there is Stephen McKinley Henderson as Sammy. The veteran journalist is world-weary and, unlike his colleagues, far more risk-averse in his older age. The four characters complement one another so well and together make for a fascinating ensemble to follow on this journey.

Civil War review

Civil War would be best classified as a political thriller. The aforementioned description of the structure of intense scenes speaks to the film as a thriller, but not to the film’s political leanings. Civil War is an intrinsically political movie and yet one with deceptively non-substantive political messaging. Despite ambiguity as to how the civil war began, there is no such ambiguity in the film’s political leanings. The central U.S. government is very clearly the bad guy. The journalists and the Western Forces (for the most part) are clearly the good guys. But, without more context on this conflict, the film’s political messaging doesn’t go far. The horrors people can commit to one another are made explicit, and the necessity and moral standing of war photographers are detailed. But, otherwise, Civil War possesses strangely vacant politics.

VERDICT: 8/10

As excellent as it is frustrating, Civil War is a stark contrast to Alex Garland’s last film Men and is unlike anything seen from an A24 film before. A jumbled first act that poorly establishes the fictional world in which it is set unsteadily kicks the film off, although it finds its footing once the main plot begins. Garland crafts scene-after-scene of incredibly intense moments that ultimately make Civil War one of the most palpably intense films ever made. Deceptively non-substantive political messaging means Civil War falls short as a political film, but its thriller elements are undeniably effective. With Civil War, Garland has crafted an inevitably divisive film and showcased that A24 can retain its roots of strange and singular filmmaking while telling stories on a much bigger scale.

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