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‘Civil War’ (review)

The possibility of civil war is uncomfortably close to reality these days, but you’ll find no hints or discussion about how we get to that point in Alex Garland’s bleak dystopian thriller.

Instead, the weariness of ongoing battles and the grit and glory of war correspondents drives the film forward in a lockstep march towards the inevitable: capturing the final shot at any cost.

The lack of context is equally frustrating and necessary, leading to an uncomfortable viewing that leaves the audience with all the questions that good journalism teases out.

While promo and trailers would lead a viewer to think they are going to get a deep dive into all the ways the country had gone awry, the reality is far closer to what is happening on the ground in the Ukraine, Palestine, or a wealth of other countries that have been under siege for years.

As the horrors of war unfold, it takes a detached observer to document each moment in sharp relief but withhold personal commentary.

Lee (Kirsten Dunst) is one of the best in the game, deadpan in the face of state violence but locked in on the shot that speaks the million words she either doesn’t have or chooses not to share.

Less apolitical is the charismatic and thrill-seeking Joel (Wagner Moura), a reporter in every way that runs towards gunfire and lives for the quote.

We never learn what threw these two together, but their camaraderie suggests a comfort and professionalism that only occurs when someone has had your back in the worst scenarios and still shows up the next day.

Garland is constantly asking the audience to trust in the broad strokes and forgoes anything but what is occurring at that very moment. How we get anywhere becomes a distant second to how we are preserving what we find there, which may be aggravating to people who were marketed a geopolitical thriller.

At its heart, the film is a tribute to the trauma and endless compartmentalization necessary to do the job.

Whether Dunst is leaning into the grizzled documentarian or letting her mask drop for a moment of reflection and regret, she bears the weight of the role magnificently. Veteran character actor Stephen McKinley Henderson brings warmth as the older reporter still hungry for another story. At the same time, Cailee Spaeny’s wide-eyed Jessie is a predictable but likable foil to all the old hats onboard. The story is just as much about her coming into herself as it is Lee’s growing discomfort with leading someone else into this life.

The well-telegraphed formulaic ending is as straightforward as the rest of the movie, but wraps everything in a bow that most editors would be satisfied with.

This is not a passive movie.

It requires the audience to make a choice rather quickly – will you spend time filling in the gaps in backstory to create stakes or are you only invested in this snapshot of the profession?

Both paths are valid viewing experiences but the expectations created by early press may cause disappointment in the first group as they are given precious few clues about the underlying political struggle. Garland has no interest in fighting this out onscreen – he keeps the tone as apolitical as his leads, focused on the job at hand rather than what came or what is to be.

Whether that is a welcome or a distracting take is open to the audience.

*  *  *  *  *
Produced by Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich, Gregory Goodman
Written and Directed by Alex Garland
Starring Kirsten Dunst, Cailee Spaeny, Wagner Moura,
Stephen McKinley Henderson, Nick Offerman


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