Life & Culture

Civil War review: On the horrifying road to a very disunited States


Tagging along: Cailee Spaeny as rookie photographer Jessie

Civil War


Reviewed by John Nathan

I have only briefly experienced a war zone as a journalist. But there is enough that rings true about director Alex Garland’s movie to bring back memories of the few days I spent in Croatia when armies, drawn from what was once the same country, fought each other.

Kirsten Dunst is Lee, a hard-as-nails photojournalist who sets out in the 857-mile road trip with war junkie writer Joel (an excellent Wagner Moura) to photograph and interview a literally besieged president (Nick Offerman) who, the in-car banter reveals, has bombed his own people, Assad-style.

Tagging along is rookie photographer Jessie (Cailee Spaeny in a role that much less tricky than the lead she played in Priscilla). The fourth passenger is limping war hack Sammy played by Stephen McKinley Henderson as a wise old owl who can spot death at 500 spaces.

And that is basically the plot; getting from A to B, between which there is fear and calm and battles and confusion and massacres and soldiers who might be affiliated to one side (the Western Front of cessationist states) or the other. Jesse Plemons as a pitiless soldier lording it over a mass grave containing the contorted bodies of civilians is terrifying.

There are no hints as to the political affiliation of the president, who makes platitudinous pronouncements on TV, or that of the opposition. But judging by the southern geography of the cessationist states, the authoritarian president is more likely to be Democrat and the army and airforce bearing down on Washington DC belong to states that are traditionally Republican.

These choices, it feels, have been made to avoid the accusation that progressive Hollywood is making a film about what happens when Trump gets into power. The bigger point is that this is where the division of people, party and world views leads. It is a point made with a viscerally cinematic skill that leaves you with a whiff of what PTSD might feel like.

It places Civil War in the pantheon of brilliantly made war movies next to, even, Apocalypse Now. But if Garland made the film as is warning, one feels he did so with little expectation it will be heeded.

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