Civil War review: Edge-of-your-seat cautionary tale of a world divided

Dystopian film follows a group of journalists as they try to reach a dictatorial president overseeing chaos from Washington DC

Kirsten Dunst plays hardy war photographer Lee, and gives one her best performances in years. Photo: A24
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'What kind of an American are you?” The line rings out like cannon fire in Alex Garland’s provocative tale of a nation divided. Guns are locked and loaded, grenades are primed and rocket launchers are at the ready for an interstate war raging against a power-grasping, dictatorial president (Nick Offerman) on his third term. The FBI has been disbanded and, so the intel goes, “they shoot journalists on sight” in Washington DC.

Among others, the states of California and Texas have allied, calling themselves the Western Forces, as they rally against this fascist-leaning federal government. The public are either living in a war zone or pretending this cross-state conflict isn’t happening. Economically, the Canadian dollar is now far more valuable than its American equivalent ($300 will buy you a sandwich). And looters are strung up, as men with guns take the law into their own hands.

Events are seen through the eyes of four members of the press: acclaimed war photographer Lee (Kirsten Dunst), seasoned journalist Joel (Wagner Moura), rookie photographer Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) and veteran political reporter Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson).

They formulate a sketchy plan to drive more than 1,000km to DC, where Joel intends to get the first interview with the president in 14 months. Travelling through this increasingly dishevelled landscape, they find a populous torn apart, barely even knowing who the enemy is or why.

Garland, the British writer-director behind such films as Ex Machina and Annihilation, paints a vivid picture of just how easily democracy can be swept away. He makes no direct references to real-life politics. Perhaps he feels he doesn’t need to.

By the time the film rolls into DC, with gunfire raging and tanks rumbling, memories of the January 6 attack on the US Capitol Building, when Donald Trump supporters stormed the barricades, flood back.

Some will be disappointed by the film’s dispassionate look at how neighbours can be pitched against one another. But this is surely a consequence of placing reporters and photographers as its core characters. “We record so other people ask,” says the world-weary Lee, inevitably haunted by what she’s seen (including one man set alight, a tyre encasing his body).

As the story unfolds, her mental resilience crumbles – ably shown by Dunst, in one of her best performances in years. Civil War sits comfortably alongside other movies that put war photographers front and centre – the best, perhaps, being Oliver Stone’s Salvador, with a crumpled James Woods behind the camera. Garland uses still photos – black-and-white snapshots taken by Lee and Jessie – extremely well, images that show both the horror of what they’re witnessing and somehow capture the artfulness of their craft.

Smartly, Civil War may be set in a dystopian America, but it’s not all misery. There’s an amusing moment where the gang pull into a quaint town that hasn’t changed, apart from the gunmen standing on a nearby rooftop. “This place is like everything I’ve forgotten,” says Lee, as they head into a clothes store to try on outfits. The normality, as residents ignore the chaos close by, is deeply unsettling.

Civil War

Director: Alex Garland 

Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Cailee Spaeny, Wagner Moura, Nick Offerman

Rating: 4/5

When the gang run into a gun-toting renegade (Jesse Plemons, Dunst’s real-life partner), who pulls the trigger if you’re not the right sort of American, Garland’s film hits its peak. It’s a scene that bristles with tension.

But the final act doesn’t quite match it, its lack of political discourse undoing the good work before it. In the end, it’s a boots-on-the-ground view of the carnage that can envelop a country, even if its writer-director resists planting his flag in the ground to explain just why it can happen.

Civil War will be released in UAE cinemas on April 25

Updated: March 21, 2024, 10:32 AM
Civil War

Director: Alex Garland 

Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Cailee Spaeny, Wagner Moura, Nick Offerman

Rating: 4/5