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Civil War (2024) Review

Alex Garland has never shied away from throwing a thematic cat amongst the pigeons with his movies, with topical allegorical subtexts such as isolationism (28 Days Later), misogyny (Men) and sentient artificial intelligence (Ex Machina). Add a distinct visual style of storytelling into the mix, and we have ourselves an interesting filmmaker whose output is better not left unnoticed. So when Civil War came out, whose story unfolds amidst the fictional titular war situation in America between secession factions on one end, and the remains of a repressive central government on the other, I took notice, and I didn’t hesitate to put it on my watchlist.

There would be allegorical subtext in abundance from the premise alone amidst all the polarization, in the public discourse, in a world with some serious wars going on in some places and war-threats in others, and with a presidential election on the horizon in the film’s theatre that’s not looking like going to be calmed down anytime soon, to put it charitably.

But I was on guard and kept my expectations in check. Garland’s films tend to become an insufferable chore to sit through when he lets his allegorical tendencies run away with him. As much as I like and admire 28 Days Later, Sunshine (I know Danny Boyle directed both of these, but Garland wrote them and I can see how they’re very much Garland’s movies in every cinematic way), Dredd, and Annihilation, but I was lost on Ex Machina and Men.

They got so heavy-handed that it simply got in the way of my viewing experience. Try as I might, and as skilfully as I could see these films were made, I just couldn’t get myself invested in anything that unfolded before me. Full disclosure, I also have that with some of Stanley Kubrick’s widely acclaimed works. Masterly made, to be sure, but far from engaging and therefore, boring. If a film aims to make me ponder anything, it should let me do so after the credits roll, not while I’m watching it.

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So with all this out of the way, let’s get to the premise and plot of Civil War. After narrowly surviving a suicide bombing in New York City, seasoned and renowned war photographer Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst, Spider-Man franchise, The Beguiled) and journalist Joel (Wagner Moura, Elysium, The Grey Man) meet up with their elderly mentor Sammy (Stephen Henderson, Beau is Afraid, Dune franchise) to get their bearings and discuss their plan for their next coverage: an interview with the President in Washington DC. Aspiring young photojournalist Jessie Cullen (Cailee Spaeny, Pacific Rim Uprising, Bad Times at the El Royale), whom Lee met at the bombing, manages to persuade Joel to take her with.

When Sammy ultimately decides to join the party as well so he can go to the war frontline in Charlotte, NC, our intrepid quartet is headed off southbound by car, as flying is not an option anymore in war-torn America. From here on out, the film unfolds as a road movie, not unlike the one we’ve seen in Apocalypse Now in the war horrors they see and record en route.

Embedded with the ‘Western Front’ insurgents, a secessionist interstate alliance between Texas and California, they’re in the frontline with armed clashes and shootings, door-to-door searches, summary executions, raids and hold-ups, sleep-overs in an impromptu refugee camp, suburbs in heavily guarded blissful ignorance, and the general state of war in the absence of rule of law, along with what one would do in order to survive.

The elephant-in-the-room question that lit up the internet like a Christmas tree about this movie is, of course, what political stance Garland takes in his film. And the simple answer is, much like a dull thud: he doesn’t take any. Not on that level at least. He takes the position of his protagonists, a journalistic point of view if you will, in that he’s as much creating an image of what’s happening as he’s showing it for what it is.

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No matter how gruesome the image, the money shot is what matters – both for Garland himself and, by proxy, for the characters in his movie. Our lead protagonist Jessie, who’s the only one with a full character arch in Civil War, comes into the proceedings wide-eyed, susceptible to- and affected by the horrors she encounters along the way. But she’s a quick learner and by the time the movie’s third act rolls around, she’s all but desensitized and laser-focused.

This doesn’t mean that the movie is devoid of any thematic depth. Aside from the mind-numbing effects of war on the human psyche, the cruelties humans will wilfully commit if sufficiently radicalized, and accuracy of the public image of a war through the lenses of desensitized photojournalists, Garland has a thing or two to say about PTSD, which I’m not going to elaborate any further on here as it involves a major plot point that I don’t want to spoil.

The atrocities of war are also on brutally full display here, in every thinkable and unthinkable way, which is a theme in and by itself – viewers with a weak stomach might want to keep their barf bags handy because Garland makes sure you don’t miss any of his onscreen carnage.

But he didn’t make a sociological manifesto with Civil War. It’s a work of fiction, a live action war movie set in an imaginary civil war in America (let’s hope it stays that way) and here, Garland finally finds the right balance between what he wants to tell and how he wants to show it.

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And the result in Civil War is nothing short of impressive. As a motion picture, the film is a sight to behold, where every frame is carefully composed, every shot carefully lensed and framed, every action carefully filmed, every angle carefully chosen, every set piece carefully composited and every piece of footage carefully picked and edited. The film oozes craftsmanship and total dedication by filmmakers who knew exactly what it takes to make a film like this. And the result is breathtaking.

It’s not just what came in and out of the cameras that’s impressive. The acting by our four main leads is also top-notch. With Lee, Kirsten Dunst seems to be channelling her inner Marie Colvin, as so masterfully portrayed by Rosamund Pike in A Private War (2018). Cailee Spaeny keeps Jessie perfectly in check, never going over the top with her newbie camera-clicking character whose way out of her depth in a reality she wasn’t even close to being prepared for, developing her into a seasoned and hardened war photographer.

Stephen Henderson’s Sammy is the voice of reason in the mayhem of war, a veteran with a friendly demeanour who’s at the end of his lifespan, joining the trip as far as Charlotte, NC for his last hooray on the frontline like he did in his years of yore. Wagner Moura’s energetic and kind-hearted Joel is de facto handler for Lee and Jessie, mostly relegated to supporting acting duties, which he handles admirably.

Honorable mention also goes to score and soundtrack. Sometimes ominous, sometimes juxtaposed to the onscreen proceedings, sometimes loud when the image is near-still,
sometimes fully muted when the onscreen mayhem goes visually full-blast, it’s a bewildering but integral part of the experience Garland wants his viewers to have while watching Civil War. I may not always be in agreement with his musical choices in the film’s soundtrack, but it’s the viewing experience that takes front and centre here.

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Particularly noteworthy is the visual rhythm that Garland observes. As in 28 Days Later, Garland takes his quieter moments here, not to build tension, not to pad his runtime, but to create visual dynamic in the portrayal of his story and the ensuing violence. You know it’s coming, and he knows that you know, so he doesn’t need any buildup; he needs your headroom to make it land as hard as he can, even though the carnage and violence are plentiful.

Make no mistake, the level of brutality in this film rivals any blood-soaked war movie you will ever see and this is no Disney-level visual noise pummelling the viewer into popcorn and cheese-nachos (or my poison of choice on such occasions, peanuts) submission.

Ultimately, the one thing Civil War runs away with is the film itself, its hues in surrealistic tinges a la Annihilation, while feeling viscerally real at the same time. This, combined with its quiet intermezzos reminiscent of Denis Villeneuve’s works, and Garland’s adversity to exposition and lengthy dialogues, makes watching Civil War a unique and emphatically visual affair.

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And while the film won’t lose any of its potency on a small screen, I can see why it was advertised as a motion picture to be watched on the biggest screen available. Garland squeezes every cent out of his USD 50 million budget, making Civil War A24’s most expensive movie to date, and I applaud the good people there for taking a chance on this.

While 50 million is still quite a big chunk of change by any means, the film looks every bit as big a production, if not bigger, as any shallow actioner coming from one of the Hollywooders made for more than twice that budget.

Garland only wants to throw strikes with Civil War, 100mph fastballs, hard and brutal. No curveballs, the story he’s telling is a straightforward one. A road movie following four journalists during a war, who go from one place to another where they think the war will be decided. No love interests, no family drama, no side-disputes or barfights, no missing loved ones, no pointless banter, no whatever cheap tropes are thrown in every so often to get people watching it halfway invested. Talking is kept to a minimum; Garland lets his picture do most of the storytelling. It will still linger on long after the credits have rolled after its brisk-feeling 108-minutes runtime.

Civil War is available on Blu-ray as well as a variety of streaming services via A24.

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