Review | Civil War | 2024

Alex Garland's Civil War was so controversial before it was ever released, that it's ironic that the final product is so toothless. There's something to be said about the nature of our divided culture that the idea of a film about a modern-day American civil war produced such strong negative reactions from both right and left, but Civil War's dogged lack of politics seems designed not to offend either side. That lack of POV is the film's biggest Achilles heel - Garland's determination to remain as neutral as possible ensures the film has as little to say as possible.

Set in a fictional present day, Civil War follows a group of war journalists attempting to travel through the war-torn countryside of the formerly United States to interview the embattled President in Washington D.C., where forces from secessionist states are closing in.  Who these forces are and why they seceded are kept intentionally opaque, although characters talk about being in the President's 3rd term and his disbanding of the FBI. The whys and wherefores are ultimately less important by how its protagonists respond to the conflict; in this case, journalists whose job is to document the conflict as objectively as possible. "Our job isn't to ask questions, it's to document so others can ask questions."

Yet in its attempts to valorize journalistic neutrality, it feels frustratingly noncommittal. There was a moment I thought Garland may go in a direction that explores the spiritual and emotional toll of neutrality in the face of such grave human conflict, but it was not to be. Its characters constantly put themselves in mortal danger to capture images of violence and conflict, but without broader context, what's the point? They keep telling us their job isn't to contextualize, only to document, but what are the broader implications of that? Anything interesting the film has to say about that is consistently undercut by the director's own public statements about what he was hoping to convey, leaving the messaging of Civil War muddled at best.

There are some striking images here (the crashed helicopter in the parking lot of an abandoned JC Penney was especially haunting), and the performances are strong (especially Kirsten Dunst, Cailee Spaeny, and Jesse Plemons in a small but terrifying role). The film's depiction of rural America as a warzone is often quite harrowing. Still, its passing mention of fictional factions like the "Portland Maoists" or events like the "Antifa Massacre" betrays its bizarre attempts to exist both a part of and yet apart from our current time and place. It desperately wants to be a warning about our Current Moment ™️, but its tepid refusal to actually engage with any politics (even fictional ones) leaves it feeling toothless. It's all handwringing, no backbone, a weak attempt to insert itself in the middle of ideological conflict and stand for nothing, never bringing anything new or interesting to the conversation.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

CIVIL WAR | Directed by Alex Garland | Stars Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, Cailee Spaeny, Nick Offerman, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Jesse Plemons | Rated R for strong violent content, bloody/disturbing images, and language throughout | Now playing in theaters everywhere.


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