‘Civil War’ boldly has nothing to say 

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Ever since the American Civil War became nothing more than a footnote in history, the concept of a war in this country now feels like a fantasy. 

Being 163 years since that war, which was the last one fought on American soil, the only way people – excluding those in the military or survivors of the 9/11 terrorist attacks – can visualize a war is through the news coverage of battles fought far away. Yet, to this country, the grisly bombings and killings that can be seen in Vietnam, Iraq, Sudan, Ukraine, and Gaza feel less like reality and more of a bleak spectacle to put on in the background. Mix that disinterest with the current political divide, and the result is some Americans who see war as an enticing idea. 

Knowing that, Alex Garland forces us to confront that detachment by bringing the horrors of war to our front doorstep in “Civil War.” 

In the near future, America is in the midst of a four-sided civil war, with the main players being the Loyalists supporting the corrupt President of the United States (Nick Offerman) and the Western Forces of Texas and California. Instead of following anyone involved with either side, the film focuses on another side typically ignored in war: the press. 

Taking inspiration from war films like “Full Metal Jacket” and “Apocalypse Now,” “Civil War’s”’ cast of characters are a group of journalists going on a cross-country road trip from New York City to America’s own heart of darkness, Washington D.C. Hoping to sneak over to the White House for an exclusive interview with the President, the hard-boiled photographer Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst), her friend Joel (Wagner Moura), their older mentor Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and the young, inexperienced Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) must journey through enemy territory and survive an America on the brink of destruction. 

Depicting a nation at war, Garland brings that idea to life as disturbingly as possible, using typical imagery seen in foreign wars and combining them with typical Americana. Car washes are now torture chambers, a suicide bomber blows up a New York City food line that turned into a riot and the peaceful countryside is occupied by snipers ready to shoot without hesitation. 

This is shown impressively by cinematographer Rob Hardy, utilizing crisp imagery that makes these horrific sights stark but unnervingly pretty, much like actual war photography. There’s also the sound design from Glenn Freemantle, which takes the cliche sound effects in these movies (cut to silence, gun shots, etc), and breathes new life into them. Throughout the film there are gun shots that are as loud as the IMAX speakers can handle them and silence matching with some gut-wrenching shots that’ll make your blood run cold. Filmmaking-wise, the crew do everything to make you feel like you’re caught in the middle of a brutal war.

Contributed by A24

Sadly, when compared to Garland’s script, the technical aspects do the heavy lifting. In trying to portray this war, the film stays neutral, never diving into politics or letting the journalists talk more about it beyond exposition. It tries to position its commentary in a “both sides bad” way, including describing the President issuing air strikes on civilians or an intense scene with a racist Western Forces officer (Jesse Plemons), but it never goes beyond that. These scenes never force the group to change their thoughts on the war or who they support, only getting repeatedly traumatized before going back to happily taking pictures of death and destruction.

The film also tries to have commentary on the nature of war journalism, specifically how exploitative the field can be as the group allows soldiers to execute others for the sake of a good shot. That would make for good commentary, showing the sociopathic side of journalism as they go back and forth between covering the war for the greater good or for ego. But the characters, despite being well-acted by the main four, aren’t developed enough for the movie to say anything profound besides “photo-journalists are crazy adrenaline junkies.” 

Part of the reason why that’s the case are the genre conventions. As expected, when the group goes on their life-threatening journey, some of them will live and die. From how the characters were described earlier, anyone can and will guess correctly which ones bite the dust and in what order. No matter if Dunst, Spaeny, Moura and McKinley do a good job portraying them, the simplistic writing keeps them from being truly compelling. 

Besides the problems with the writing, it seemed like Garland couldn’t figure out what tone he wanted. Constantly “Civil War” will go back and forth between a sincere, bleak film and then suddenly be ironic, putting in random needle drops that take away the serious tone of some really dark scenes. If that was the point to show the journalists’ perspective, it doesn’t work. When hip-hop music suddenly plays over a man getting shot in the head, the whiplash distracts from the movie itself instead of the emotion.

Even if there are incredibly intense scenes and some effective use of camerawork and sound, “Civil War,” in trying to be an apolitical movie on war, doesn’t have much to say about it. The premise of four neutral people diving head-first into a violent civil war is perfect for showing how what they see affects them, but Garland would rather keep it surface level. 

He avoids confronting the politics of the war to absurd levels, refusing to even talk about the two other sides that are involved. It’s strange how he writes around an incredibly detailed war but doesn’t want to focus on it. For those wanting to see how Texas and California united as one, they will be disappointed. 

As ambitious as Alex Garland is in depicting a war in America, he isn’t as ambitious in exploring its significance. “Civil War” is really a simple action-thriller that desperately wants to be more, but is too afraid to take it a step further. It may offer some intense scenes, grisly imagery and a scary Jesse Plemons performance, but it will have the same effect as the many real-life wars going on in foreign countries: a bleak, distant spectacle.

Some concern, but not too concerned.

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Ethan Tarantella
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