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‘Civil War’ review — an eerily familiar dystopian perspective that captures last of US

‘Civil War’ review — an eerily familiar dystopian perspective that captures last of US
A view of the dystopian landscape of 'Civil War'. (Photo: A24/Entertainment Film Distributors)

If you plan to go into Alex Garland’s ‘Civil War’ with fists clenched, ready to be outraged, and claim personal attack over your sociopolitical beliefs… don’t. The dystopian thriller is nothing like that, for better or worse.

After its first weekend at the US box office, near-future thriller Civil War took the top spot and enjoyed the biggest-ever debut for a film released under the A24 banner.

It will be interesting to see if the latest effort from Ex Machina, Annihilation and Men writer-director Alex Garland defends this achievement in the coming weeks because the film isn’t quite what it’s promoted as being. Those who enter the cinema looking to be outraged or vindicated about the on-screen representation of their political views will find little to raise their blood pressure and fuel Facebook tirades. Unless they’re angry that they didn’t get an opportunity to be angry, of course.

What they will find instead is a more credible portrayal of dystopian America than most. For years now, on-screen depictions of deserted city streets, highways full of abandoned vehicles and burnt-out shells of military hardware have been the result of zombies in one form or another. In Civil War, the monsters are human, and only human.

The film delivers its world-building through snippets of dialogue, drip-feed style, leaving audiences to piece together the movie’s context. America has fractured into various groups and is 14 months into a battle between the US government, operating out of a locked-down Washington DC — and headed by Nick Offerman’s propaganda-spewing despot president — and the Western Forces, an army born of a partnership between California and Texas.

Civil War

Kirsten Dunst, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Wagner Moura, and Cailee Spaeny in ‘Civil War’. (Photo: A24/Entertainment Film Distributors)

That alliance feels far-fetched, but almost everything else comes across as being shockingly within the bounds of possibility in Civil War. America is shown as a failed state with citizens in the biggest cities queuing for water, frequent power cuts, displaced people living in UN-run refugee camps and suffering from a currency collapse where the Canadian dollar is now sought after. South Africans may find some pitch-black (and painful) amusement value in seeing aspects of our reality applied to a First World setting for once.

It’s against this backdrop that Civil War’s story unfolds. With the conflict about to reach its climax, acclaimed war photojournalist Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst), and writer colleague Joel (Wagner Moura) race to the Capital, with their past-it mentor Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and aspiring 23-year-old photographer Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) in tow. Coming across as The Bang Bang Club by way of The Last of Us, Civil War plays out essentially in an episodic format where this mismatched press team have different eye-opening encounters and experiences on the perilous road to Washington.

Read more in Daily Maverick: The Last of Us – better than any video game adaption deserves to be

In some other universe, Civil War exists as an eight-episode TV series, although right here and now, Garland has delivered a compact and taut tale in just 109 minutes. The filmmaker has always had a master’s grasp of harnessing apprehension and viewer discomfort for maximum emotional effect, and those skills come through strong yet again in the strikingly shot, and frequently harrowing Civil War. Intense battle scenes (which could do with a warning due to their realism) sit side by side with tense quiet moments, like the standout meeting with Jesse Plemons’s ultra-nationalist military man. Viewers join Civil War’s protagonists in balancing on a knife’s edge for much of the film. If you’re wearing a smartwatch, you may receive a warning to calm down.

Kirsten Dunst and Cailee Spaeny

Kirsten Dunst and Cailee Spaeny in ‘Civil War’. (Photo: A24/Entertainment Film Distributors)

Civil War isn’t concerned with taking sides — typically you don’t even know which faction Lee and company are engaging with — but the film does like to beat a drum about the need for journalistic neutrality, as well as the see-sawing psychologies of war reporters. While dour Lee is frequently paralysed by past trauma, Joel, Jessie, and other members of the media corps, experience the exhilaration of surviving the nightmare situations in which they find themselves and develop carpe diem attitudes. It’s a pity then that next to the California-Texas alliance, the most unbelievable part of the film is its depiction of journalism, where little to no work is done, lessening the impact of this filmic aspect. It just doesn’t ring true.

Civil War

Wagner Moura in ‘Civil War’. (Photo: A24/Entertainment Film Distributors)

Then again, an exploration of war correspondent experience may not be the point of Civil War either. In a role unlike anything we’ve seen from her before, Dunst is superb in conveying the jaded, world-weary spirit of someone well aware of the pointlessness of her life’s work, as home has now transformed into one of the war zones she covered overseas, and warned about.

Ultimately, the only direction that Civil War points a finger at is the audience in its entirety — how we as society now consume and react to coverage of conflict, with lessons from human history going unlearned. DM

Released on 12 April, Civil War is out now in South African cinemas, including IMAX.

This article was first published on PFangirl.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Random Comment says:

    And in other cinema news, modern Hollywood movies have so little appeal to the man in the street that Ster Kinekor is laying off 236 employees.

  • Ken Meyer says:

    Disagree completely. First 35 minutes were largely boring with the slightest of character development (“My parents live on a farm in Ohio and pretend nothing is happening.”) The Canadian dollar is the only funny moment of the movies and the stand-off with the ultra the only nail-biter. The rest is skop, skiet and lots of donner. Garland tried to be clever, but the result is a bland film. Btw- it’s not a success at the box office. Word of mouth has spread. (As a rule I find if Pollack praises a movie, it’s usually shit.)

  • John Smythe says:

    “…but the film does like to beat a drum about the need for journalistic neutrality”. It’s exactly journalism (in one way or another … Fox, CNN, BBC, YouTube content creators and other social media sources) that has fueled the fire across the world. Instead of reporting news, they report opinions. Many of them using unqualified, incompetent commentators and rabble-rousers to spew their leftist or rightest viewpoints. Very seldom in the middle. True journalism that just “tells it like it is” is hard to find.

    • Confused Citizen says:

      Agree 100%

    • Elethu Duna says:

      I definitely agree. 24 hour news has been the death of us, especially those political analysis. I dearly miss the 7pm mews from the 1990’s and early 2000’s. News were delivered as is, no emotions, no opinions, no one-sided point of view.

  • Graeme J says:

    Thanks for linking the trailer to the article. Having watched the trailer, I will definitely not be watching the movie.

  • Johan Buys says:

    On the streaming channels recently there were two series that were interesting.

    One is about Benjamin Franklin’s time in France convincing them to support the locals in the war of Independence.

    The other is the Lincoln assassination after the civil war.

    Both are really good and I thought I understood US history fairly well.

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