Star Rating:

Civil War

Director: Alex Garland

Actors: Nick Offerman, Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura

Release Date: Friday 26th April 2024

Genre(s): Action, Thriller

Running time: 108 minutes

A group of journalists and photographers (Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, Stephen McKinley-Henderson, Cailee Spaeny) set out from New York to Washington DC to interview the US President (Nick Offerman) in the waning days of the Second American Civil War. Embedded with soldiers and partisans along the way, the group witness the violence and bloodshed of a country tearing itself apart at the seams...

Despite its title and the mere fact that a significant number of Americans no longer seem to believe in democracy any more, 'Civil War' is decidedly anti-political. There are only a few hints, here and there, as to how the US came to this point, and it's about as unsubtle as it gets - the US President has disbanded the FBI, ordered airstrikes on the civilian population, and has essentially turned Washington DC into a military compound from which he denounces everyone and everything outside his own control. In short, it's become a fascist dictatorship in every sense of the word, not the more subtle all-but-name variations. It helps, of course, that the main protagonists of the story are photojournalists as they document the final days of the United States without necessarily commenting on it. We're never even entirely sure who's fighting who, but as one scene points out, "they're shooting at us, so we're shooting at them."

There's a key moment, very early on in the movie, that speaks to just how messed up this version of America is. It's deep in Manhattan, and a convoy delivering water is being accosted and is about to turn into a riot when, out of nowhere, a suicide bomb is detonated by a woman carrying an American flag right into the middle of it. What makes it even more twisted is Kirsten Dunst's character clocks the flag, not the woman, and instinctively knows to duck and cover. In this America, it's a sign of immediate and indiscriminate violence. As the group of journalists travel further into the heartlands, they encounter refugee camps, fringe groups fighting for survival, and as you'd expect, a terrifying lack of humanity. One scene, featured briefly in the trailer, finds Jesse Plemons as a shell-shocked soldier holding the group hostage as he tries to discern "what kind of American" they are.

Even though it comes as an ensemble, it's very much Kirsten Dunst and Cailee Spaeny out in front. For her part, Dunst is able to communicate the smothered anguish and the detachment required in her character without giving over to easy clichés and obvious cues. There's a weathering in her performance that speaks to the sort of inevitability of it all, that her character always knew the surrounding environment was eventually going to happen. For Cailee Spaeny, there's a kind of wide-eyed enthusiasm for it all that - later on, naturally - gives way to the horror and realisation of what she's witnessing. Wagner Moura and Stephen McKinley-Henderson, by extension, represent the old world - one is a combat journalist and adrenaline addict, the other is a staid and responsible journalist from "what's left of the New York Times" trying to apply old world views to the new world struggling to be born.

The action and the violence throughout 'Civil War' is as intense as you'd expect, and the final act set inside Washington DC is like an all-out action blockbuster with rockets firing into the Lincoln Memorial and Apache helicopters swarming overhead. Yet, before this, there's the kind of intimate violence and threat that borders on unbearable and couches the whole thing in a very realistic way - not unlike 'Apocalypse Now', which feels like a touchstone for Alex Garland in this. There are long periods where they're simply driving through bombed-out highways, walking through refugee camps, or in one memorable moment, stopping off at a supposedly neutral town that's also populated by armed snipers on every corner. In 'Civil War', there's just enough of the old world to make it familiar, but never enough that it's safe. Maybe that's the point, that it never was and people deluded themselves into believing it would always be. At any rate, 'Civil War' presents a terrifying and exhilarating journey into the heart of darkness in America.