Review: Civil War

Alex Garland's Civil War explores the horrors of warfare, the necessity for photojournalism and an anxiety-inducing image of America and what it shouldn't become 4 stars.

(Image: A24)

An American flag races across the screen into a crowd of New Yorkers clambering for rations… and the reaction is instantaneous. The cinema goes silent. As the shockwave (both emotional and visual) reverberates throughout the room it’s immediately clear that viewer’s of this film should expect the unexpected. 

In Alex Garland’s new A24 film Civil War expect panic and fear. Expect haunting visuals, and brutal imagery. Expect chilling shots of American iconography under siege, and uncomfortable depictions of people dealing with the reality of life in a war zone. Expect an unimpeded message regarding the state of affairs in America, and a pleading depiction of the ease with which those tales of hardship so long visualised in far off lands would cement itself in the so called ‘land of the free’.

And, at times, expect the expected. 

Civil War imagines a circumstance where America descends (as they once did) into internal warfare, now ladened with the technology and weaponry of the modern age. Whilst the full context of this imagined war is not ever explained – maybe quite purposefully – the film watches as the united Texan and Californian Western Forces inch their way closer to Washington DC. Our protagonists for the film are journalists Lee (Kirsten Dunst), Joel (Wagner Moura), Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and wannabe photojournalist Jessie (a particularly standout Cailee Spaeny) , as they strive to record the President, and more importantly his final words, before he is captured and executed by the insurgence force. 

With a cast equally talented in portraying thrill-seeking, joy and existential panic with just their eyes, it doesn’t take long to fully invest in the ride across America with this ragtag team.  

But as a film about the need for photojournalism in war zones, it is – of course – the epic scale visuals that stand out. From shots of a far too familiar smoking NYC skyline, to the sparking embers of a burning forest, this is a film that  must be seen to be believed (in IMAX if you can). The film is as harrowing in its visuals as it is shocking in its sound design. As bullets blaze and helicopters roar, the immersion of the audience into the war zone is enough to get your adrenaline racing, even before the guns are drawn. The actual photojournalism we witness being captured is equally as harrowing and stunningly realistic, right until the very last moment. 

As this crew of war journalists journey the back way round to DC from NYC, through Pittsburgh and West Virginia, they encounter a full range of dangers and respites, depicting the unique mix of thrill ride and necessity that is journalism in a war zone. As Jessie learns what it means to be a journalist, and most importantly to live in fear in these dangerous realms, she also learns about the neutrality of the job – just point the camera and shoot. There is little time for emotion when capturing the exact state of affairs of war.

Garland’s subtext pleads, as Plemmons’ character shouts:

“Well what kind of American are you?” 

Kaitlyn Beattie-Zarb

And there is little time for making friends, as the crew learn in a panic-inducing scene as the group reach the outskirts of Charlottesville. Here director Alex Garland builds a particularly scary (but not so unfamiliar) caricature of a maniacal American soldier (played remarkably well by Jesse Plemmons), who has apparently been murdering and burying an entire town of civilians, and threatens to execute our protagonists. Isolated, racist and seemingly power hungry, this character is not afraid to use his gun, and certainly not afraid to benefit in the lawlessness of these not so United States. Most notably, we never get clarification of which side of the war he is fighting on, despite his obvious military uniform.

And as such Garland’s not-so-subtle point is made. War makes maniacs of all, bringing out the worst in people, a circumstance that would only profit off the already brewing divisiveness of the real United States of America.

Most interestingly, Garland does avoid any specificity of goodness or badness within the two warring parties, although there is some vague implication that the president might be corrupt, specifically from his use of propaganda infused speeches. Yet even within the president is no clear political leaning, no obvious red or blue tie. There is no context for why California and Texas teamed up, other than implications of sheer size, history of independence or genuine notability outside of the USA for international viewers. But that’s not the point. The press are welcomed on both sides because their job is to accurately document both sides. 

Still, this lack of context is something we yearned more for as the horrifying final image faded. Maybe this urge for more world building is part of a desire to know why the situation got so bad, calming nerves about such a circumstance ever occurring in the real world. And hence maybe Garland doesn’t want to provide any prediction or guidance for how an actual Civil War would commence? Rather his focus truly is on providing a warning for the realities of war, regardless of how it starts. 

Amongst the harrowing depictions of what modern civil war could be, this film is a warning for what the United States of America could become and what it must hold on to. Even in the apolitical universe of this setting, the moments of goodness are obvious – moments when kids’ laughter fills the empty stadium of a refugee camp… moments where common and decent humanity prevails amidst the madness.  

But there is little subtlety in the emotional journey of this film. There is hardship, and there is anger and sadness, but there is also a job to be done and a connection to draw. A story bookended by real documentary footage of recent American events, and a harrowing photo of the Western Force soldiers posing with a dead body, the message of causation is rarely ‘hidden’ in plain sight. Rather it’s smacking you across the face. Or more accurately – it’s smacking Americans across the face.

‘Don’t let division divide US.’

‘Don’t let this United States fall in any way nearly as harrowing as this fictional war implies it could.’

Released in the midst of one of America’s most divisive election years ever, only 3 years after an actual insurrection was enacted upon the US capitol building, the implication could not be clearer. The caricatures could not hit closer to home. The absence of democracy in this film, by both the predecessors and successors of this war, could not be more worrying.

‘Don’t allow this imagining to become reality’ the film screams. 

Civil War is the personification of whatever anxiety anyone may be having regarding the future of the United States of America. Drawing on this anxiety with ties to present political division and past histories of civilian conflict, the most frightening moment of the film may also offer a a somewhat surprising glimpse of an optimistic solution. 

Garland’s subtext pleads, as Jesse’s charicature shouts:

“Well what kind of American are you?” 

Civil War releases in cinemas on April 11th 2024.

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