‘Civil War’ Is an Amazing Film of Imagination and Cinematic Verve

I don’t remember any movie as all-consumingly hopeless and depressing.

The excellent but often under-appreciated actor Kirsten Dunst plays Lee Smith in ‘Civil War.’ Courtesy of A24

In the confusion and chaos of today’s polarized political landscape—a time of violence, crime, insurrection and the rape of traditional human values—the plight of a free press is another threat to Democracy that isn’t explored as often as it should be. Director-screenwriter Alex Garland’s Civil War is a Doomsday parable that makes up for lost time.

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CIVIL WAR ★★(3.5/4 stars)
Directed by: Alex Garland
Written by: Alex Garland
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Cailee Spaeny, Wagner Moura, Stephen McKinley Henderson
Running time: 109 mins.

As a cautionary tale about America’s inevitable self-destruction, the relentless cynicism of its narrative is often preposterous, but as a visionary look at the horrors that lie ahead for a great country on the rocks—and what America has done to itself already—this is one of the most harrowing yet exhilarating science-fiction epics ever made. I also find it perturbing to realize a film about everything wrong with America was made by a British director, not an American.  

The setting is a dystopian, post-apocalyptic, not-too-distant future in which the world is divided between left-wing liberals and right-wing conservatives, the principles of truth and integrity in journalism are all but extinct, and covering the news is so dangerous that reporters are forced to wear helmets for self-protection. In what passes for a minuscule plot, excellent but often under-appreciated actor Kirsten Dunst plays Lee Smith, a fearless, respected photojournalist inspired by the great World War Two icon Lee Miller, the first woman to enter the Nazi bunker after the surrender of the Third Reich, who photographed herself naked in Adolf Hitler’s bathtub for Life magazine. On assignment, she tries to make sense of the American predicament and responsibly, accurately and truthfully report the news. The film begins when she narrowly escapes a violent bombing that kills piles of people in the streets of New York. From there, she launches an 857-mile trip to D.C. to shoot what may be the last photograph of the president of the U.S., who has become the victim of a murderous mob that holds him prisoner in the White House. She’s accompanied by a small group of fellow reporters, including Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), a worshipful rookie girl who longs to be a carbon of Lee, Joel (Wagner Moura), a gung-ho seeker of scoops for Reuters who risks his life repeatedly to be in the center of the action, and Sammy (Broadway veteran Stephen Mckinley Henderson), an aging survivor of  “what’s left of the New York Times.” The arduous trajectory in Alex Garland’s script serves to guide the press (and the audience) through barren, blistered mine fields of war, across the deserted highways of abandoned cars and empty football stadiums converted to settings for killing sprees and makeshift graveyards for masses of discarded corpses. There’s one ghastly sequence with a sadistic racist maniac who massacres his victims with blasts of artillery fire, while wearing red sunglasses. 

If you can keep your eyes open through the imagined depiction of the colorful horrors of the American future, you will never be bored: airstrikes aimed at innocent citizens, suicide bombers waving the stars and stripes, an amusement park called Winter Wonderland with images from the past, including a dead Santa Claus in the middle of a field—exactly like the one I saw in a front yard on a grisly tour of the ruins in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. There’s so much going on and so much devastation to watch in Civil War that it’s hard to know who is fighting whom. In the chaos, everybody is at war with everybody else. The film carefully avoids mentioning the names of any actual current politicians in either house of Congress, as well as the political parties on either side of the aisle, but once the press miraculously reaches Washington, they find the remains of the capital of Democracy in combat streets full of tanks, soldiers on fire, cherished monuments destroyed, and a sitting president in his third term who has disbanded the FBI and raped the U.S. Constitution, so you can fill in the blanks. 

Like it or loathe it, Civil War is a film of savage imagery and motiveless carnage, compromised ideals and endless anarchy. Nihilism on film may be all the rage, but I don’t remember any movie as all-consumingly hopeless and depressing. It is the conviction of Alex Garland that if things continue in the political direction we’re experiencing now, then no one will be safe from annihilation in the next decade, with the free press in the middle, trying to record what they witness in the line of fire while the rest of us die. Look at it as a movie for posterity, and it becomes a worthwhile movie to savor, but nothing else—and you’ll survive. Admire Civil War as an amazing film of imagination and cinematic verve but nothing else—and you will, too.

‘Civil War’ Is an Amazing Film of Imagination and Cinematic Verve