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‘Civil War’ review: Divided we stand, barely, with Kirsten Dunst as a war-torn photographer

By Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune
Published: April 14, 2024, 6:00am
2 Photos
This image released by A24 shows a scene from &ldquo;Civil War.&rdquo; (Murray Close/A24 via AP)
This image released by A24 shows a scene from “Civil War.” (Murray Close/A24 via AP) Photo Gallery

Much like America itself, writer-director Alex Garland’s “Civil War” is a precarious sort of success almost in spite of itself, and despite being its own worst storytelling enemy. How? How can those circumstances lead to a movie still worth seeing? Well, see it and find out. Or find out if you disagree. Garland’s fourth feature, after the variously fantastical and eerie “Ex Machina” (2014), “Annihilation” (2018) and “Men” (2022), sticks to a straightforward narrative path; it’s the tone and rhythm likely to carve up audiences into warring factions.

I found it coldly gripping, as well as a mite ham-fisted. At its best, this vision of American end times, an election or two from now, sets aside its less persuasive “tell” for more persuasive “show,” without generic spectacle (though with a $50 million production budget, it’s Garland’s and distributor A24’s biggest gamble to date) or diversionary thrills. It’s stern, methodical and essentially serious. Seeing it immediately after being clobbered by a trailer for the fourth “Bad Boys” movie, as many of us were the other night, amounts to a mood swing of science-fiction proportions. Out for a good time? Welcome to “Civil War.”

Garland wastes no time on setup or a moral compass for this not-so-strange new world. A few key facts are established early on. A “Western Front” secessionist movement, with strange bedfellows California and Texas leading the way, has sparked a second civil war. We hear a casual reference to an infamous “Antifa massacre”; elsewhere, in actual news camera footage, images grabbed from the 2017 Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and other domestic catastrophes diagnose a grievously ill body politic.

The story hitches a ride through war-torn America with a quartet of reporters and photographers fleeing New York to get to Washington, D.C. They’re not looking for a safe haven; journalists there, we’re told, are killed on sight. Rather, hard-bitten photojournalist Lee, a haunted veteran of various international war zones played with real steel by Kirsten Dunst, and her fellow Reuters journalist Joel (Wagner Moura), have set their sights on interviewing the president (Nick Offerman) before the U.S. government officially falls. They want the exit interview, one way or the other.

We’re given scant how-did-we-get-here particulars in “Civil War,” presumably because we can guess. This national leader, first seen rehearsing a televised White House speech expressing optimism and resolve in the face of multidirectional insurgents, is a three-term POTUS who, we hear, has summarily gotten rid of the FBI and routinely conducts airstrikes on an unruly populace. In an SUV stamped PRESS in big black letters, Lee, Joel, veteran reporter Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and newbie tagalong photographer Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) travel south, aiming first for Charlottesville and the Western Front, where the combat’s especially hot. Lee hates having Jessie along for this risky excursion, though she’s talented and unbound by caution. Their push/pull relationship centers the human element of “Civil War,” though Garland is not interested in making American mulitplexes damp with tears.

Garland has said in interviews that the only stance he wanted to take, overtly, was a pro-democratic free press stance, in tandem with an anti-war movie that actually believes itself. The terror and righteous bloodlust of combat has made billions worldwide, on various screens, in various genres. “Civil War” succumbs here and there to an audience-friendly elimination of an unsavory threat, but only here and there.

As they roll toward the D.C. climax, where the embedded journalists (embedded apparently with the secessionist forces) scramble around a bullet-strewn White House, the characters are reduced to pure survival mechanisms. The storyline has shown them too much. Around the midpoint, Jesse Plemons enters the narrative as a white nationalist controlling his little corner of rural America. He’s on the hunt for anyone who’s not a “real” American, and he has a lyme-dusted pit of corpses to prove it. (The imagery comes from too many historical and current horrors to number, the Nazi concentration camps most of all.)

The scene works; it’s extremely tense, well-acted, brutally casual. It’s also a little cheap. Garland can’t resist an easy comeuppance here, and in many ways, his movie is very blunt in what it sees, and shows us, in a nation embracing its worst instincts. “Civil War” keeps its characterizations lean, reductive, even, without the zingy thrills and warm hugs of “The Last of Us.” It’s a movie equivalent of a bracing dip in a lake dangerously near freezing.

If I prefer other Garland films — the compact and witty AI fable “Ex Machina,” the supple evocations of “Annihilation” (before it dissolves into maddening vagaries), the strikingly acted polemic “Men” — it’s because Garland the screenwriter lets down Garland the director this time, with solemn exchanges in need of a little variety. Also, the cynical kiss-off at the end: it’s too much, and not enough. And yet I’m still wrestling with this movie, and recalling its images of department store malls turned to rubble, and worse. Limitations, problems, yes. But “Civil War” coheres into its own determined warning to 2024. This, Garland is saying, is a future we actually have a chance of avoiding.

But by all means, let’s keep politics out of it.


3 stars (out of 4)

MPA rating: R (for strong violent content, bloody/disturbing images and language throughout)

Running time: 1:49

How to watch: In theaters