Civil War (dir. Alex Garland)

By: Adam Freed

Of America’s Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln famously stated, “In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong.”  Lincoln’s comments speak to the deeply entrenched nature in which Americans throughout history have held firmly to their beliefs as if manifested by God’s decree.  Hindsight has a way of smoothing the rough edges of right and wrong, a privilege that British superstar filmmaker Alex Garland denies audiences in his concussive cautionary tale, Civil WarIn a near dystopian reality Garland (Ex Machina, 28 Days Later) paints a blood soaked masterpiece of the doomsday possibility in which the land of the free and the home of the brave, folds in upon itself.  Free of political talking points, Civil War never burdens itself with assigning blame or lazily labeling any of its combatants as statically good or evil.  With no right or wrong to champion from theater seats, audiences are left instead with the heart wrenching images of a future in which Americans further fractionalize and tribalize rather than to seek solace in the humanity of their shared heritage.  

Civil War embeds its narrative to the laudable efforts of the journalistic community, especially those who willingly place themselves in harm's way as the living embodiment of the First Amendment. By using four characters, all journalists at different stages in their careers, it allows the London-based filmmaker to illustrate the heroism and addictive quality of journalistic pursuit.  Armed with a quiver of razor-edged performing talent, Garland takes his aim squarely at the fragmented state of the American social landscape by weaponizing the calloused but soulful performance of the limitlessly talented Kirsten Dunst (The Power of the Dog, Bring it On).  The film’s central figure, Lee (Dunst) along with her journalistic partner Joel, played by a charismatic Wagner Moura (Narcos: Mexico), embark on a harrowing road trip from the decemated remains of New York City in pursuit of an interview with the divided nation’s sitting commander in chief.  Played stoically, and nearly in cameo, by Nick Offermann (The Last of Us), the president sits precariously on the edge of disaster as he leads the “loyalist forces” from the security of the Oval Office.

The punishing emotional crux of Civil War is that the brutality of the combat captured by the bold team of journalists is far beyond the time for placing blame.  Instead, the bloodshed bludgeons audiences with the unimpeachable fact that in combat there are only those who kill and those who have been killed.  The lump in the throat reality that fills Alex Garland’s film with an overwhelming veil of sadness is that on both sides stand Americans.  In the solidification of this pursuit, Garland masterfully maximizes the impact of each military grade weapon report, setting forth a new brand of jump scare in what is the most terrifying non-horror film in years. As the film grows closer to the eventual epicenter of the hazy American conflict, so does the realism and proximity of the warfare on display. Not since American troops stepped foot on Omaha Beach in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) has the cost of American combat felt this visceral.  With great deference to the nation-defining leadership of Abraham Lincoln, Alex Garland’s Civil War challenges that although “ (side) must be wrong,” the carnage in pursuit of that blood soaked clarity comes at the highest possible cost. 

Target Score 9/10 - Alex Garland’s Civil War is not a work of his traditional science fiction, rather the potential end result of the escalation of the corrosive political divide that has seemingly blanketed the United States of America.  Although the film is a work of fiction, its emotional proximity to heart stopping reality is enough to engulf full theaters in shockwaves of shattered silence.