Civil War Review

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Hearing the premise of Civil War, one might expect a social satire. To an extent, Alex Garland’s film delivers that. Yet, Civil War takes itself surprisingly seriously, although not to the point of becoming pretentious like Antebellum. The best comparison is to The Twilight Zone, which is name-dropped at one point. In many respects, Civil War is what Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone revival should’ve been. The real-world parallels are evident, but the commentary doesn’t overshadow the characters or story. Above all else, Garland has made a thrilling, haunting war picture through the unique lens of photojournalism.

The film doesn’t take place in the 19th century, but in the distant future when another American Civil War has erupted. Garland’s screenplay doesn’t delve deep into how America got here, although we’re given enough details to fill in the blanks. The President (Nick Offerman) has disbanded the FBI and is currently serving a third term. While this is a dystopian future, it isn’t like The Hunger Games where a group of freedom fighters goes up against a seemingly unstoppable dictatorship. The war is waning down with the President’s defeat in grasp. That doesn’t mean political tensions or violence will end overnight.

At the center of the chaos is Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst), a photojournalist who’s seen too much in her lifetime. Yet, Lee remains fixated on getting the perfect shot, practically desensitized by the explosions and murders she captures daily. Hoping to get a quote from the President before his downfall, Lee sets out with her colleagues Joel (Wagner Moura) and Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) to Washington. Also hitching a ride is Cailee Spaeny’s Jessie, an aspiring journalist who idolizes Lee, but isn’t prepared for what lies ahead. On a good day, they’ll drive through empty cities where snipers keep watch atop buildings. On their worst day, they’ll cross paths with an unhinged soldier, played by Jesse Plemons in a chilling performance.

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Whether or not you believe America is moving closer to a civil war every day, Garland offers a grounded portrait of a worst-case scenario. Yet, the film’s goal isn’t to demonize one side of the political spectrum. It’s about the people caught in between. Civil War is just as much a road trip movie with the characters and their dynamics anchoring our investment. When the war does rear its ugly head, Garland approaches the combat with the same grit and intensity that Kathryn Bigelow brought to The Hurt Locker fifteen years ago. The climax, in particular, is a feat of sound, production design, and editing, making what once sounded impossible feel like a documentary.

Many outlets will compare the President to Donald Trump. The parallels aren’t unwarranted, especially in an election year. Yet, the President here shares more in common with Osama bin Laden, an enemy who must be stopped dead in his tracks with no room to negotiate. Instead of a compound in Pakistan, this enemy hides out in the White House. This builds to a scene that some will find troubling and others will cheer on as justified. I lean toward the latter, although there’s another moment toward the end that continues to divide me. In a film about a country torn apart by extremes, though, Garland tells a balanced story that unearths the humanity buried beneath the seemingly never-ending social unrest. Garland doesn’t have all the answers, but he leaves us with a relevant reminder: America’s greatest threat isn’t China, Russia, or the Middle East. The U.S. can only be destroyed from within.

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About Nick Spake

Nick Spake has been working as an entertainment writer for the past ten years, but he's been a lover of film ever since seeing the opening sequence of The Lion King. Movies are more than just escapism to Nick, they're a crucial part of our society that shape who we are. He now serves as the Features Editor at Flickreel and author of its regular column, 'Nick Flicks'.

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