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film review
  • Civil War
  • Written and directed by Alex Garland
  • Starring Kirsten Dunst, Cailee Spaeny, Wagner Moura, Stephen McKinley Henderson and Nick Offerman
  • Classification 14A; 108 minutes
  • Open in select theatres April 10; wide, April 12

Critic’s Pick

The actor Jesse Plemons is gaining a reputation for making big impacts with small parts in big films. Here he is now in Civil War, Alex Garland’s tense, adrenalized and clear-eyed actioner about a United States that is the opposite of united.

“What kind of American are you?” asks Plemons’s casually lethal, unnamed soldier. Delivered in a chilling deadpan, the question is as pointed as the assault rifle he’s holding.

Set in the near future – tomorrow? – Civil War stars Kirsten Dunst as a calloused war photojournalist named Lee. We can see Lee as an avatar for British filmmaker Garland, the dispassionate outsider observing and commenting on the state of the world’s most powerful union. But if Dunst’s journalist is Garland’s lens, Plemons’s soldier is his mouthpiece: What kind of people are we?

Incidentally, Dunst and Plemons are married in real life. Both were nominated for Academy Awards for their roles in The Power of the Dog. Are they contractually obligated to work with each other?

The film begins with a message from the president during what we might call the Second American Civil War. (The president is played by Nick Offerman, looking like right-wing political strategist Steve Bannon in a Trumpian suit. Which is a comment in itself: Was a buffoon like Trump really calling the shots during his presidency?)

“We are now closer than we have ever been to victory,” the president broadcasts from the White House. He says that “some are calling it” the greatest victory in the history of military campaigns. Vainglorious nonsense – remind you of anyone?

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This isn’t a fireside chat; it’s a liar’s-side chat. The “illegal secessionists,” led by the Western Alliance of California and Texas – two stars on the flag – are winning. A team of journalists set out to make it to Washington in hopes of landing an interview with the beleaguered leader.

Civil War is equal parts war-journalism drama and road-film thriller: Salvador meets The Road. “They literally see us as enemy combatants,” says Sammy, a veteran newspaperman played by Stephen McKinley Henderson. “They shoot journalists on sight.”

Of course, the “media as the enemy” meme is ripped straight from today’s headlines. Anti-media rhetoric is pure faux-populist demagoguery, and it is not limited to the United States. Garland, who also wrote the screenplay, isn’t portraying journalists as heroes and heroines. Rather, the film is a sharp warning on the erosion of the fourth estate’s role as a safeguard against authoritarianism.

Is the film bleak? Yes – the premise demands that. But there is optimism in the seemingly unlikely alliance of Texas and California. A hardcore red state uniting with the bluest state in the nation in the face of extremism should be seen as a sign of hope.

The look and sounds are harsh, intense and unsettling – realism, not cinematic and romantic notions. I’m not sure who first said, “War is hell,” but I bet you dollars to corn-syrup blood it wasn’t a filmmaker.

The characters cover the range of war journalists. Dunst’s Lee is battle-hardened, disillusioned and driven to get the story at all costs. Others are adrenaline junkies. Wagner Moura is the conflicted, emotional Joel, somewhere between the two extremes.

Cailee Spaeny (who portrayed Priscilla Presley in the 2023 biopic Priscilla) is the clichéd Jessie, a plucky young photographer who manages to tag along on the perilous trip to the nation’s besieged capital. She reminds Sammy of Lee when she was younger, “before she lost her faith in the power of journalism.”

At one point, the carload of them stops in a small town that seems to have been spared the atrocities of war. A dress boutique is open on Main Street USA. “We’re just trying to stay out,” the woman at the counter says. It’s a brief respite from the horror, and it is not as serene as it appears anyway.

Raw and electrically presented, Civil War is an ugly odyssey and an audacious premonition. “Every time I survived a war zone, I thought I was sending a warning home: ‘Don’t do this,’” Lee says at one point. “But here we are.”

Exactly – here we are.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)

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