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'Civil War' Review

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April 10, 2024
Hunter Friesen
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Alex Garland’s Civil War is the cinematic equivalent of clickbait. A generic montage of violence is interspersed within an equally generic speech by the president (Nick Offerman) about how the Western Forces of California and Texas have suffered great defeats at the hands of the United States Armed Forces, and that the Florida Alliance is on its last legs. America is now in the final stages of democracy, where the people have risen and the Second Amendment is the ultimate law of the land.

From that very opening moment, Civil War begs you to ask questions that it not only can’t - but refuses - to answer. Why have California and Texas seceded from the union and joined forces to overthrow the government? What are they fighting for? And why is Florida on its own side? I suppose Garland’s vagueness about the whole thing is meant to allow you to apply your doom-scrolling mentality to the situation. He’s banking on our collective post-2016 consciousness’ to fill in the details, almost as if each person gets their own individual puzzle. It’s cowardly and lazy, becoming one of the great modern magic tricks as this “intellectual blockbuster” carries less of a brain than the giant ape vs. giant lizard showcase we just got in Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire.

I could put my tinfoil hat on and theorize that Garland and A24 sanded down the rough edges of the story to make it appeal to a broader audience. After all, this is A24's biggest production by a large margin, with its reported $50 million budget more than doubling the previous record holder of Everything Everywhere All at Once. The cost of working on a bigger scale is more than just literal dollars, it also requires a willingness to circumvent controversy.

Of course, there’s the glass-half-full approach that none of the other large studios and streamers (Warner Bros., Paramount, Netflix, etc.) wanted to touch this property with a ten-foot pole, so I should be thankful that there’s still someone like A24 that’s willing to pony up the cash to make something that’s not been market tested to the nth degree. But even though that’s all good and true, should I blindly bow down to something just because it’s not like everybody else? Am I asking for Garland to blatantly come out and say that this civil war is about Republicans vs. Democrats, or incorporate some sort of attack on the far-right or far-left? I wouldn’t have minded what Garland had said, just as long as he said something. ANYTHING! It all holds the same weight as your coworker telling you that “our country is really divided right now” and then never elaborating on that opinion.

That rotten meat makes it hard to appreciate all the other fine ingredients in this all-American hamburger. In her first role post-Oscar nomination from The Power of the Dog, Kirsten Dunst gives a towering performance as a jaded war photographer named Lee. A not-so-subtle comparison is made between her and a famous real-life photojournalist Lee Miller (recently played by Kate Winslet in the ho-hum biopic Lee) by Jessie (Cailee Spaeny, continuing to rise up the ranks of the best younger performers working today), a up-and-coming journalist who’s desperate to be on the frontlines. Sensing that the end is near, Lee and Joel (Wagner Moura) are on their way to the White House to try and get an interview with the president, now serving an unelected third term in office.

Their journey takes them down a road from hell, littered with the sight of dead bodies and the sound of bullets and bombs. Garland and his production crew permeate this route with as much tension as possible, with gunfire becoming bone-rattling and trigger-happy soldiers positioned at every corner. IMAX is not the format normally associated with A24 films, and Garland takes full advantage of what he’s been given. It’s a great shame that almost all of these incredibly nerve-wracking action set pieces are undercut by groan-worthy offbeat needle drops.

While he doesn’t have ideas about the macroeconomics of this war, Garland does deliver themes on those that document it. Even in a digital world with everything available everywhere, a simple image still contains more power than a thousand words. Garland cuts the action to the photographs being taken by our central characters, giving a glimpse into how chaos can be processed for history. “We record so other people can ask the questions” is the mantra that Lee takes. That’s been enough of a mental excuse for her in foreign lands, but how can you block out something happening in your own backyard?

It’s the same question Garland poses to his audience when the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument are being destroyed. We’ve become numb to seeing nondescript Middle Eastern cities being leveled, and now the weapons are pointed back at us. But even though that imagery is admittedly startling and something we haven’t seen before with this intention, it all comes back to the emptiness of the message. It’s all sound and fury, signifying nothing.

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