Film: Civil War

When I first heard about Alex Garland’s Civil War (2024), it seemed like it might be case of “too soon.” Now that I’ve seen it, I’m starting to wonder if it wasn’t soon enough. With a science-fictional scenario revolving around American political polarization, this one risked coming off like a clumsy time capsule or, worse, a blunt partisan hit job. But Civil War situates itself so slickly in a liminal, political otherwhen, and approaches its core conflict through such a clinical lens, that it feels at once intensely relevant to and completely separate from contemporary American reality, an unclouded cautionary fable of the fraught road down which the United States continues to recklessly march.

In the near future, the U.S. has splintered into multiple smaller powers, including the secessionist “Western Forces” of California and Texas. (?!) This last group has taken issue with the current federal regime, and a brutal civil war is underway. Heavily implied is that a rogue president (Nick Offerman) has overstayed his term, determined to maintain his grasp on power and impose his will. Resisting his officious rule, the Western Forces are now mobilizing on Washington, DC, and appear to have the upper hand.

In New York, a small group of journalists coalesces around legendary war photographer Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst). Lee and her adrenaline-junkie partner Joel (Wagner Moura) are convinced the last major story of the war may be an interview with the president, before his illegitimate government collapses. Their plans are sussed out by a cagey old hand from the New York Times, Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), and an earnest young indie photographer, Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), both of whom finagle their way onto the expedition. Together, the four journalists set off for DC, traversing an eerie, wartorn American landscape where danger lurks around every corner.

Is it possible to argue with the political futurism of Civil War, or perhaps simply its plot-logic logistics? Here and there, sure. But honestly, who cares? Easily one of the most riveting films I’ve seen in years, it embeds the viewer with its quartet of brave lunatics, who have made it their life’s work to put themselves in harm’s way to report on dangerous events. Like them, Garland has done his damnedest to maintain a distant, journalistic neutrality in how he depicts that madness. Neutrality is a political decision in and of itself, of course, but the genius of Civil War is that in refusing to choose sides, it keeps its focus squarely on the damage. Offerman is a casting masterstroke, on this score—an actor who has played right-leaning libertarians (Parks and Recreation) and liberal hippie visionaries (Devs), he has the perfect unicorn persona to make him a target of either end of the political spectrum. While the scenario ascribes him with certain Trumpian over-reach, and ramps toward a Nazi Germany bunker finale, the text doesn’t heavy-handedly weigh in to delineate right or wrong. In the end, the politics don’t matter as much as the consequences of violent disagreement, a point our courageous posse of investigators provides a steady window on—even if their motives aren’t always pure. One can imply political leanings in a pinch, but they are ultimately irrelevant to the reality on the ground.

Aside from its clear-eyed approach and unnervingly gripping action, Civil War succeeds on the strength of its key performers. Everyone sells their role perfectly: Dunst’s jaded, seen-it-all legend, Moura’s volatile wild card, Henderson’s cautious old hand, and Spaeny’s bright-eyed, in-over-her-head upstart. It couldn’t be a more perfect ensemble, and while the characters are flawed and the story leaves uneasy questions about how much we should be rooting for them, it’s impossible not to get invested in their taut, life-and-death mission.

Who knows what Civil War might look like, several months from now after the next election. A strident over-reaction? A quaint under-estimation? However things go, Civil War is a stunning piece of work. Miraculously eluding didacticism, it serves as a potent metaphor for the madness of contemporary American politics—and a powerful “if-this-goes-on” shot across the bow.

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