Civil War Review: As A Cautionary War Tale, It Stings And Scorches

Civil War Review: Kirsten Dunst is brilliant. Wagner Moura and Stephen McKinley Henderson, too, are terrific. Holding her own among these stalwarts is Cailee Spaeny.

Civil War Review: As A Cautionary War Tale, It Stings And Scorches

A still from Civil War.

When democracy begins to recede and the safety nets fail, violence and chaos inevitably rush in to fill the vacuum. Civil War, a tautly edited, blisteringly powerful political thriller, drives home the point with unsettling force and a rare level of insight and integrity. Writer-director Alex Garland imagines a dystopian near future where the United States of America, no longer united, is on the brink of caving in upon itself. A dangerously pompous President ensconced in the White House and an array of armed combatants - one is never quite sure who wants what and why, but it does not matter - are locked in a fierce war.

It is not the details but the devil that lies behind them - the pitfalls of abuse of power - that Civil War probes. The English director's penchant for unconventional material and methods holds him in good stead. Ex Machina was sci-fi reimagined, Annihilation forayed into cosmic terror, and Men delivered earthy horror in an English countryside setting.

Civil War, Alex Garland's fourth film, explores the irreversible damage that political venality can wreak. Amid the cracking action that punctuates the film's quieter moments, the focus is firmly on the dynamics of truth amid a worsening conflict. The seekers are four journalists.

Rebels - they are from a 'Western Force' of two politically divergent states, Texas and California, united under a two-star flag - are out to launch an assault on the White House and overthrow a President who, in defiance of democratic principles, has arrogated to himself a third term in office.

The journalists - battle-scarred photojournalist Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst), seasoned Latino reporter Joel (Wagner Moura), their mentor Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), and a rookie news photographer Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), who sneaks into the group much to Lee's chagrin - embark on a road journey from New York to Washington D.C. for an interview with the President (Nick Offerman) - the first in 14 months - and to cover the rapidly unfolding events.

Alex Garland does not take sides although the allusions he makes to present-day realities are clear enough all through the film. The approach that the director adopts is essentially that of an observer. It serves to mirror the objectivity of the journalists at the centre of Civil War. It plays off very well against the bruising intensity of the action.

The polarising thriller, at once visceral and cerebral, is a trenchant commentary on what happens to a nation when tried and tested political structures are compromised by greed for power and the backlash that it provokes.

In the opening sequence, a group of journalists in New York City are witness to a violent police attack on street demonstrators. Lee - the name is a hat-tip to Lee Miller, a war correspondent who gave up a modelling career to chronicle World War 2 for Vogue - saves a 23-year-old Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) from harm.

The evolving equation between the two women separated by age, experience and temperament becomes a focal point of the tale. Jessie idolises Lee. The latter, a hardened pro was has seen far too much bloodshed to be swayed by emotions, maintains a steely exterior.

The tables turn as the war reaches the White House. The wide-eyed newbie proves to be a quick learner. The older woman, who has been there and done that, suffers a steep psychological slump. She sinks into a near-stupor until one final dramatic burst harks back to who she has always been.

Both Lee and Joel, who are as seasoned as the former but far less hardboiled, look up to the wise old Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson). The veteran has slowed down owing to his advancing years but has lost none of his edge, a fact that he demonstrates in a kickass action sequence late in the film.

The President has disbanded the FBI and ordered aerial attacks on civilians. We see the demagogue briefly in the Oval Office at the outset. He goes back and forth over a couple of lines as he rehearses a blustery, hyperbolic speech.

Having suppressed what is called the Florida alliance, he preens: "Some are already calling it the greatest victory in the history of mankind." He then backtracks a little and revises the tall claim to "the greatest victory in the history of military conflict". Only words matter. The blood being shed on the streets and the cities does not.

Two balancing acts, both phenomenally impressive, stand out in the film. One, the director achieves a blend of intimate character-driven conversations that throw light on individual stories and collective histories and gripping, explosive and tense action sequences.

Two, Alex Garland does not dilute the core idea of the film - journalists as a troubled nation's last line of defence against authoritarianism and erosion of individual liberties - even when his focus is squarely on the uneasy role model-admirer drama involving the two photojournalists.

Civil War is served magnificently well by the work of cinematographer Rob Hardy, who misses nothing that can accentuate the impact of the visuals of a war-hit landscape. Be it a deserted JC Penney car park, a football stadium turned into a medical relief camp, bombed-out tanks and vehicles or a mangled helicopter, the camera writes distress into every frame.

Film editor Jake Roberts imparts unrelenting pace to the action. No less impactful are the music score (Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury) and the sound design.

The four principal actors play people who are from the same fraternity but are distinct from each other as individuals and professionals. They inform their interpretations with an astoundingly wide range of experiences and emotions.

Kirsten Dunst is brilliant. Her performance would undoubtedly rank alongside her finest ever. Wagner Moura and Stephen McKinley Henderson, too, are terrific. Holding her own among these stalwarts is Cailee Spaeny. She captures the contours of Jessie's evolution to absolute perfection.

Watch out for a chilling cameo by Jesse Plemons as an unnamed soldier whose question to the people he has at gunpoint sums up a significant part of what Civil War seeks to articulate: What kind of American are you? The lives of the captives depend on the answer they give.

As a celebration of uncompromising journalists holding their ground in the face of grave danger, Civil War is right up there with The Year of Living Dangerously. As a cautionary, intuitive war film that captures a world sliding into pandemonium, one political misadventure at a time, and highlights the pursuit of truth as a bulwark against autocracy, it stings and scorches.


Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, Cailee Spaeny


Alex Garland