While bound to spark hundreds of think pieces, Alex Garland’s stirring Civil War will undoubtedly go down, too, as one of the most provocative films of the year. It’s also an early contender for one of the best, offering a stunning warning: no matter what the cause, war is hell. Civil War is less interested in the causes of conflict and more about front lines as the Western Forces march towards the White House through the East Coast, turning small towns into battlefields. 

Before January 6, and certainly before 9/11, the alternate universe that Garland sets up would feel unimaginable, yet the Englishman offers a clear warning portraying a world––including a New York City–– that has been modified (à la the COVID era) for new circumstances. In some pockets, including a small town and luxury hotel, life continues with some sense of normalcy and multiple layers of security and modifications to how business is done. In such regard, Civil War is many things: a superbly directed action thriller that uses the IMAX format to expand the impact of its violence; an angry cautionary tale; a call for peace; and a critique of journalism as the neutral arbiter, the first draft of history, and the necessary alliances formed between reporters and newsmakers to break critical stories.

The premise is deceptively simple: Civil War opens as the President of the United States (Nick Offerman) addresses the nation to deliver news he doesn’t quite believe himself. The Western Forces, a Texas- and California-based band of secessionists, has been squashed and a similar group in Florida is on their way to becoming neutralized. Without much context we’re introduced to Kirsten Dunst’s Lee, a war photographer capturing an uprising in New York City. New York, as after 9/11, has become a frontline in some neighborhoods, while conditions have not changed––give or take a power outage and slow Internet access––in others. The latter includes a business-class hotel where Lee, Reuters writer Joel (Wagner Moura), and an elder statesman of field reporting Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), are held up.

At a protest, Lee saves Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) and ultimately becomes a reluctant mentor to her when Joel invites Jessie to join a road trip to Washington, D.C. Along the way, Jessie is exposed to an initial horror at a gas station a few miles down the road from a military checkpoint. After agreeing to pay for fuel in Canadian currency, Jessie wanders off to photograph her first atrocity: a soldier has strung up a guy he knew in high school for looting and asks Lee and Jessie to decide what their fate should be.

Garland and his team don’t shy from the cost of violence; images evoke some of the modern front lines in Ukraine, Gaza, Bosnia, and Chechnya for sheer scale of depravity. A later encounter with an unnamed soldier (Jesse Plemons) is especially chilling as he executes, without a second thought, a foreign-born correspondent to dump his body in a mass grave. The image of the grave, particularly on an IMAX screen, is difficult to shake. Although Garland, unlike Nolan or Villeneuve as of late, did not shoot in the full IMAX aspect ratio, he leverages this format for total impact, creating an immersive epic that is primarily about capturing the horrors of war. Garland dispassionately presents hell, making the least multiplex-friendly IMAX picture imaginable––at least since another A24 feature released around the same timeframe last year––but it is vital.

With its ambitious set-up, there are many ways and directions Civil War could have unfolded, yet the film’s scope and scale is quite minimal. Giant set pieces (such as downed helicopters in abandoned mall parking lots to the final raid) keep a narrow perspective, leaving quite a lot for audiences to unpack and imagine. The film is ultimately about the fog of war, the alliances and politics of its characters remaining a bit unclear.

The film is as much a critique of journalism as it is a celebration of the profession, with Dunst’s Lee telling Jessie their job is to simply report––what was going to happen around the back in the gas station, or elsewhere, was going to happen even if they were not there. Henderson’s old hand Sammy provides sage advice to Jessie, telling her to sleep when she can when you never know what’s around the corner. Sammy is a down-the-line, honest reporter with decades of front-line experience who calls balls and strikes. When their group heads to Washington with the goal of interviewing the President before the government falls, he debates with Joel what questions to ask. Joel’s politics are somewhat more ambiguous. After all, history is usually written by the winner, but Offerman’s President has served three terms and disbanded the FBI, which could have provided a warning for what was to come.

Without being explicitly in its text, Civil War is a bleak look at what could happen if the nation’s institutions become hollow shells of themselves––this includes legal and civic institutions. While one could imagine a more complex version of this scenario, the film is deceptively simple, like Dunst aspiring to capture just the facts in this fictional futuristic conflict. We learn Lee made a name for herself capturing images of the “ANTIFA massacre.”

The best, simplest way to describe Civil War is an emotionally detached nightmare––perhaps it’s not quite on the level of classics like Apocalypse Now, and it’s quite the timing for A24 to release it in an election year. While next month’s wide release will no doubt engender debate, Civil War is a hard film to watch and a hard film to shake: for its sheer scale of atrocities, one would hope reactions are a sobered reminder of war’s toll.

Civil War premiered at SXSW 2024 and opens on April 12.

Grade: A-

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