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Civil War

  • Film
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
"Civil War"
Image: Murray Close"Civil War"

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Alex Garland’s brutal, dystopian vision of America at war with itself is visceral but vague

Like a man granted possession of his own Time Stone, Alex Garland seems to have glimpsed all of humanity’s possible timelines, and discovered that they’re all bad. Whether it’s eco-catastrophe (Annihilation, Sunshine), the menacing side of A.I. (Ex Machina, Never Let Me Go), Big Tech doing Big Tech things (Devs), or good old-fashioned zombies (28 Days Later), the Londoner is not envisaging a future of levity and joy for us all.

The often gripping but ultimately frustrating Civil War sees the Brit casting a penetrating outsider’s glance at the current political divisions in America and drawing similarly bleak conclusions.

Nine filmmakers out of ten would open it by clueing in their audience with a few scene-setting title cards: the US President (Nick Offerman), now serving a Constitution-busting third term, has abolished the FBI, California and Texas have seceded and their forces are sweeping across America towards Washington. That kind of thing. 

Garland is not that filmmaker. He plunges straight in, leaving you to pick up the situation as you go. It’s deliberately disorientating. What you do know is that Kirsten Dunst’s hard-bitten photojournalist, Lee, and Wagner Moura’s reporter, Joel, are aiming to get from New York to DC before the city falls to score an interview with the President. A dangerous car journey shared with Stephen McKinley Henderson’s veteran newshound and cub snapper (Priscilla’s Cailee Spaeny) is the only way to do it. 

Alex Garland is not envisaging a future of levity and joy for us all

A road trip movie with a post-apocalyptic edge, Civil War is a fierce, confronting portrait of a nation tearing itself apart. Garland subverts American cultural and historical iconography to potent effect: hostile tanks rumbling down Pennsylvania Avenue; IEDs showering New Yorkers in shrapnel; a flag with only two stars on it; a rural sniper shootout soundtracked by Christmas carols. The reporters’ journey is full of eerie, surreal, and in one encounter with Jesse Plemons’s xenophobic paramilitary, terrifying stop-offs.

But if you’re hoping to understand what led to this breakdown in democracy, or even what Garland thinks it says about the state of the States today, there’s less to chew over. I found the lack of context more frustrating than the absence of a political viewpoint. It’d be perverse for a film commenting on political polarisation to add to that division by picking a side, but a more interesting film might have offered some perspective on the way information is weaponised or shed some light on how the America of 2024 might have become the future America in the film.

‘We record so other people ask,’ notes Dunst’s journo at one stage in the film, and Civil War clearly shares that credo. It’s a pungent articulation of American chaos. The problem is that it’s not telling us much that we don’t already know. 

In cinemas worldwide Fri Apr 12

Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Phil de Semlyen

Cast and crew

  • Director:Alex Garland
  • Screenwriter:Alex Garland
  • Cast:
    • Stephen McKinley Henderson
    • Cailee Spaeny
    • Kirsten Dunst
    • Wagner Moura
    • Nick Offerman
    • Jesse Plemons
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