.Film Review: ‘Civil War’

A dystopian actioner that's big, loud, ambitious and slightly limited

Writer-director Alex Garland faces a tricky dilemma in shaping his new dystopian actioner, Civil War. Just how true to real life does it need to be?

Civil War is the ripped-from-the-collective-nightmare story of a small group of sympathetic characters caught up in a large-scale internal armed conflict in the United States, in the near future. Just how near is the main—but not only—unanswered question in Garland’s narrative, which strives to shock casual movie audiences with ultra-realistic violence of the upscale-disaster-flick variety.

Just who is this “casual audience”? When it comes to the current election year, the sides seemingly formed and hardened long ago, wasting oceans of ink, decades of air time and quite a few drops of blood along the way.

The choices are blindingly obvious. Only a mooncalf could remain neutral. As the parodic paraphrase of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If” insists: If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you, you don’t understand the situation.

Moviegoers who understand the situation won’t need a tutorial to recognize that the film’s president of the United States—played with subtle mannerisms by character stalwart Nick Offerman—spends his short screen time acting very much like a certain Very Stable Genius. The details of how he got back into the White House don’t require an explanatory prequel. It’s something we worry about every day.

As the action opens, the conflict between the government and the “secessionist” Western Forces (California? The Pacific Northwest? Colorado?) is in its late stages, with the WF closing in on Washington, D.C., against the expected fierce opposition. WF troops include women and people of color; the federal side consists of white males. Garland does not dwell directly on the politics.

On hand to cover the war from the Western Forces guerrilla perspective are veteran combat photographer Lee (Kirsten Dunst, in a gratifyingly stoic performance) and her fellow news gatherers Joel the war correspondent (Brazilian actor Wagner Moura), reporter Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), a newbie who curiously shoots black-and-white film stock instead of digital. Jessie, it turns out, has a sense of journalistic history and is a longtime fan of Lee’s work.

Things on the ground are appropriately hellish: riots and shootouts on the street, a mangled freeway full of wrecked vehicles, military checkpoints, tracer fire through the night and one little joke: Canadian dollars are the most stable currency. Our quartet of news folks takes off from New York City on a road trip in a van marked Press—a roundabout approach to D.C. that takes them through Pennsylvania and the Virginias.

Many firefights occur along the way; we also witness uprooted citizens, death squads, lynched looters swinging in the breeze and odd vignettes like the eerily tranquil dress shop in West Virginia, where the stoned-looking clerk informs her customers: “We try to stay out of it.”

The skirmishes demonstrate filmmaker Garland’s decision to present modern ground warfare realistically, with percussive jolts at ear-splitting IMAX volume. The assault on the White House is a show stopper.

But the film’s breakout scene features a band of militia fighters led by a uniformed creep in red plastic shades—a cameo by Jesse Plemons, in real life the spouse of costar Dunst—whose main objective is the filling up of a body dump in a farm field near an abandoned theme park.

U.K. international auteur Garland’s previous pics (28 Days Later, Ex Machina, Men) have tended toward science fiction flavored by the bizarre, with his reach often exceeding his grasp. Civil War confirms what we already know from Bosnia in the 1990s, Ukraine and Haiti today, GilloPontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers and Elem Klimov’s Come and See.

Garland obviously did his research, even though Civil War adds up to little more than semi-political popcorn. Kudos to actors Dunst, Moura and Spaeny. In the meantime, register and vote. Your life may depend on it.

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In theaters

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