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Review: ‘Civil War’ is a Gritty, Unflinching Look at the Horror of War and the Darkness of Human Nature

April 9, 2024Ben MK

The apocalyptic thriller is a genre that spans a wide variety of scenarios, from the more scientifically based natural disaster epic to more fantastically themed blockbusters concerning zombie outbreaks and alien invasions. When it comes to the genre's most resonant and powerful entries, however, it's those movies that effectively highlight the underlying human drama that undoubtedly hit the hardest. And in Civil War, writer-director Alex Garland sets out to tell just such a tale, in this tense and gripping cautionary drama about a not-so-united America on the brink of self-destruction.

Set in the near future, or perhaps a not-too-far-fetched alternate reality of a United States where Texas and California have joined forces in an attempt to overthrow the federal government, the film follows prolific war photographer Lee Miller (Kirsten Dunst) and her partner-in-crime, Joel (Wagner Moura), as they attempt to secure the first interview in over a year with the country's embattled President (Nick Offerman). Many parts of America have become a literal war zone, turning otherwise ordinary citizens against one another, widening the already disparate divide between the political left and right, and transforming some of the nation's once most prosperous cities into unrecognizable shells of their former selves. Amidst the chaos, however, journalists risk life and limb as they attempt to document the conflict, with the situation escalating to the point where reporters and photographers are even shot on site if they dare set foot in the country's capital.

It's a perilous time for many. Yet, in spite of the obvious danger, there are also those like 23-year-old Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), a relatively naive, aspiring photojournalist who hitches a ride with Lee, Joel and veteran reporter Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), as the group prepares to leave New York City for Washington, D.C. Not fully realizing the full extent of the journey she and her newfound companions are about to embark on, Jessie ends up being a liability to her more experienced colleagues, especially as the four make their way closer to their destination, where it becomes increasingly difficult to tell the difference between friend and foe. Still, as their road trip across a divided America progresses further, Jessie and Lee will discover that they have something in common. And when they finally do reach the end of their journey, Jessie will have to prove that she has what it takes to snap that elusive photograph that will forever be remembered throughout the rest of history.

Keeping in step with Garland's previous directorial efforts, such as Annihilation and Ex Machina, not to mention his earlier screenwriting credits like Sunshine and 28 Days Later, the result is a suspenseful and compelling movie steeped in a foreboding sense of existential dread, where its characters find themselves fighting for their lives, while also inevitably and oftentimes subconsciously wrestling with the very meaning and purpose of their own existence. Whether it's at the macroscopic level of the destruction wreaked by a nationwide conflict or the more granular crumbling of interpersonal relationships, Civil War doesn't pull any punches in its commentary about humanity's own real-life spiral towards self-inflicted extinction. Yet, at the same time, there's also a poetic beauty to be found within the way the film portrays the otherwise bloody and brutal nature of war.

A gritty, modern-day masterpiece, Civil War is Apocalypse Now for a new generation. And although it's easy to see the parallels between its narrative and our own everyday reality, it's also easy to imagine its warning going unheeded. Much like Lee's disappointment in seeing her war photos fail to deter others from initiating violent conflict, ours is a society seemingly incapable of avoiding a self-fulfilling prophecy. Without movies to hold a mirror up to this ugliness, though, there's no telling how much faster that fate will arrive.

Civil War releases April 12th, 2024 from Elevation Pictures. The film has an MPAA rating of R for strong violent content, bloody/disturbing images, and language throughout. Its runtime is 1 hr. 49 min.

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