3 min read

Civil War

By keeping the war vague, Garland makes a better war movie than expected.
Civil War

Some movies suffer under the weight of discourse. It’s not uncommon for a film to be subject to intense scrutiny about its themes, its perspective, its point with only a trailer or teaser out. Never mind that it’s a snapshot of the movie created by a marketing department and not its director; never mind that the director himself is going on a baffling press tour; never mind that perhaps the best way to engage with a film is by actually watching it. Because at this point, any discourse is good discourse, making it only logical that A24 deliberately leaned into controversy to promote Alex Garland’s newest film, “Civil War.” Garland himself even baited discourse by discussing whether it was responsible to release a film like this now, in these polarized times.

Yet, those poles are largely absent in "Civil War." And even more surprisingly, the lack of discernible politics is actually the film's greatest strength. Because though "Civil War" is about a country cleaved in two, we're given the barest bones of what that conflict is actually about. In fact, frequently, we have no idea which side soldiers are even on. And instead of making the film waffling and centrist, it makes it more pointed, as the film evades any conversation about contemporary America and instead questions what it means to see war with your own eyes, to distill it through a camera's lens.

"Civil War" follows a group of mostly gristled war journalists, as they embark through the heart of their own country, now unfamiliar to them with its scars and factions. They intend to capture the next great story about this mortal conflict. But as they traipse deeper, they become doubtful of what their photos can achieve.

The intricacies of this precise conflict are left largely vague, which in any other war film would irk me. There have been many films about American soldiers and civilians in war zones that aren't theirs where their experience becomes the centerpiece, their (frequently Caucasian) faces the ones American audiences can relate to. The camera venerates the American soldiers for their valor and patriotism, ignoring their atrocities for neater propaganda, while the background remains out of focus. In "Civil War," Garland weaponizes that same lens against its originator. We never know exactly why the USA has fallen to pieces. We do not know what causes its factions fight for. We are not invited to side with either towering battalion, bloodthirsty and nondescript. Instead, our sympathies lie entirely with the characters in front of us, the journalists Garland catches with his lens.

The performances in this film, despite its occasionally shallow script, are rich and dense. Kirsten Dunst and Victor Moura are terrific as the primary journalists, the former losing track of her purpose and the other chasing danger for thrills. Some conversations are clunky and some moves feel convenient. Yet because of the stellar cast and Garland's rocketing pace, it's hard to linger while you get sucked up in the mayhem.

The real shining stars are Stephen McKinley Henderson, the oldest of the reporting bunch, and Jesse Plemons, a soldier they encounter during their journey. Both are show-stopping character actors, where in almost any film, their time onscreen completely inflects the film's trajectory. (See:, Henderson in "Dune" and "Lady Bird;" Plemons in "The Power of the Dog," "Killers of a Flower Moon," and "Game Night.") Here, they are no different. Henderson's Sammy is relentless, unwilling to rest as long as there are stories to report. He is the film's heart, and as close as we get to a moral compass. On the other end, Plemons inhabits the moral vacuum at the center of war. Without revealing too much, his performance of few words makes for one of the most disturbing and chilling scenes I've seen in recent memory.

That characterization of Plemons' performance is maybe the best way to understand "Civil War." Like Plemons, the film says little but shows much. It refuses to take a stance on any of the issues we expect it to with its title. It does not tell us how to feel, outside of its central characters. It's a movie that many are going to disagree on, partly because of its objectives and intentions. It's a tense inversion of Hollywood's obsession with capturing war, one that brings the beasts and barbarians home to roost. Needless to say, it's a movie that's worth talking about.