Civil War review — A chilling vision of a country in chaos

Written and Directed by Alex Garland | 109 min | ▲▲▲▲△ | In Cinemas

Civil War, or Alex Garland Directorial Effort Number Four — following Ex Machina, Annihilation, and Men — is akin to its predecessors in that it deftly undermines both its marketing and its audience expectations, defying any easy categorization. Garland consistently puts women in the forefront of his movies, which is pretty unusual from a male genre filmmaker, and would rather his work ask questions than provide easy answers.

Civil War is also Garland’s best effort since Ex Machina — a (for him) large budget thriller with more in common with a subgenre of journalism-driven political thriller — Under Fire, The Killing Fields, and Salvador — than with dystopic visions like the recent Leave The World Behind.

That said, it echoes the Esmail film in an image early on, with smoke rising over the skyline of Manhattan. The United States has been fragmented into its partisan elements — we’ve got the president (Nick Offerman) holed up in DC making big claims on TV. It’s all bluster as he’s in real trouble.

As unlikely as it sounds, California and Texas have joined together to oppose Washington. The film’s naysayers have made some noise about this, criticizing the film for how politically vague it is, as if Garland is afraid to draw more direct parallels with the Democrats and GOP.  I didn’t have any trouble with its creative license as it’s clearly meant to provide a broader scope to the story, though depicting a three-term president in White House in this election year? There’s only one authoritarian-loving leader who says things like, “Some are already calling it the greatest victory in the history of mankind.”

If anything, the movie Civil War most resembles is 28 Days Later — directed  by Danny Boyle, but written by Alex Garland — with a dash of Children of Men. A lot of specifics of what’s going on have been lost. Characters are living in the present, dealing with what’s on the ground.

This one is centrally about war reporters doing their jobs. We meet Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst) in New York, a photojournalist covering trouble in the streets. Forces are amassing around DC and she wants to get a final interview with the president before he’s thrown out of power, or worse. She’s joined by an international reporter, Joel (Wagner Moura), a veteran muckraker, Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson, always welcome), and a 23-year-old keener photog, Jesse (Cailee Spaeny), who idolizes Lee and shoots on film with her father’s antique camera.

With Dunst the heart of this thing, Garland explores the lasting affect of this work on the people who do it — Lee has that 1000 yard stare that comes from having witnessed so much. This while Jesse wants to be her.

As quartet make their way through Pennsylvania into West Virginia in an effort to circle around the American capitol and find a way in, the structure reveals itself — it’s a road movie, episodic and disjointed, but intentionally. We frequently don’t know what side the men and women with guns shooting at each other are fighting for. Nobody’s in charge as the various militia stake out their piece of turf and bury the bodies. Echoes of Apocalypse Now resonate throughout.

I had a couple of questions about the work these journalists are doing. Joel’s supposedly the writer — when does he file? Especially with the issues around data and charging devices? There’s also times where the various groups of soldiers are entirely comfortable with these folks shadowing their every move as the bullets fly, which stretches credulity.

But I didn’t worry much about these leaps while in the movie, and that’s due to Garland’s confidence with suspense — he brings his audience to white-knuckle and holds until the end. He casts well — no weak links in this chain. Dunst, too often underestimated in her career, is especially good, and Jesse Plemons more than delivers in a single-scene cameo.

What’s most terrifying about the movie is how, even as it dekes deftly away from political specifics, it envisions a country believably shattered and discordant. Garland’s honed his ability to shock — the filmmakers of recent horror movies I’ve watched could learn a thing or three from him about effective jump-scares. That combined with a fantastic use of score, sound editing, and needle drops, all work to subtly (or not) unnerve.

It’s the images that will linger: Suicide bombers running into crowds while hoisting American flags, helicopters floating through fog, the Lincoln Memorial reduced to rubble.

About the author


Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.