Review: In Alex Garland's powerful ‘Civil War,’ journalists are America's final hope.

Civil War, Alex Garland's thunderous new film, depicts the US disintegrating. The country has been at war with itself for years when we're invited in, with a few journalists capturing the chaos on the front lines and pursuing an impossible interview with the president.  

Garland, the writer-director of “Annihilation,” “Ex Machina,” and “Devs,” always seems to be seeing humanity's worst qualities and self-destruction. He explores important subjects in films with bizarre and frightening imagery that stay in your subconscious for too long. Whatever you think of "Men," his most polarizing picture, Rory Kinnear giving birth to himself is unlikely to be forgotten.  

Garland challenges his audience again in “Civil War,” starring Kirsten Dunst as vet war photographer Lee, by not creating the film about what everyone expects. Our nation is politically split. Yes, the President (Nick Offerman) is a bombastic, growing autocrat who has declared a third term, attacked his citizens, and cut off the press. One terrible character played by Jesse Plemons has some harsh lines on who is and isn't an American.  

The trailer that went viral is not the tale. Garland isn't boring or conservative enough to show red and blue ideologies. We only know that the Western Forces of Texas and California have seceded and are attempting to overthrow the government. What they want or why, or what the other side wants, is unknown, and many of the characters don't seem to know or care.  

This approach may frustrate some viewers, but it's the only one that makes sense in a film about journalists who risk their lives to report on violent wars and turmoil. Lee tells Cailee Spaeny's Jessie, a young, ambitious photographer who has snuck aboard their risky voyage to Washington, that she produces honest, impartial photos so others can.  

"Civil War" is more about war reporters than anything else—the horror of the beat, the importance of giving witness, and the moral and ethical challenges of impartiality. Dunst's Lee is experiencing an existential crisis after shooting so many tragedies and feels that she hasn't changed anything—violence and death are still around. She's a pro, dedicated to the tale and image. Joel (Wagner Moura), her coworker, chases gunfire and drinks too much every night.  

The wide-eyed but ambitious novice Jessie (Spaeny) is in over her head, and the wise and buttoned-up aging editor Sammy (the great Stephen McKinley Henderson) can't envisage a life outside of journalism even as his body fails him. All are self-motivated and have no outside life, which is a critique of certain movie characters but not here (trigger alert for journos).  

To safely drive from New York to Washington, the gang must pass through Pittsburgh and West Virginia. The roads and towns are set-dressed, but locals will recognize dead malls, creaky off-brand gas stations on two-lane roads, boarded-up shops, and overgrown parking lots that create an unsettlingly effective backdrop for “Civil War.”  

Dunst and Spaeny play the veteran and novice skillfully, creating a well-written, complex, and growing interaction that should spark post-credits arguments and discussions. In every scene, from a peaceful discussion to a tense standoff to a 17th street shooting, dread penetrates. It has a terrific, cerebral soundtrack and a Sonoya Mizuno appearance, like all Garland films.  

Smart, interesting, and challenging films are rare, but “Dune: Part Two” and “Oppenheimer” have been an embarrassment of riches this year. That conversation should include “Civil War”. A full-body theatrical experience deserves a chance. The Motion Picture Association rates “Civil War,” an A24 release in cinemas Friday, R for “strong, violent content, bloody/disturbing images and language throughout.” Runtime: 119 minutes. Three stars out of four.  

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