Civil War  (12A) |Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Alex Garland, US/UK, 2024, 106 mins

Cast:  Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, Cailee Spaeny, Stephen McKinley Henderson

Review by Carol Allen

Alex Garland’s film is set in a near future, where America is at war with itself.  No reason is given but the unlikely alliance of the states of Texas and California as the Western Forces is locked in a war to take over the country from the federal government in Washington.  

Where all the other states stand and why this is happening is not stated.  The film is about war, not the reasons for it and in particular about the journalists who risk their lives to cover such situations.

In the centre of the chaos is the conflict seasoned team of photographer Lee (Kirsten Dunst) and reporter Joel (Wagner Moura).  Lee’s unsmiling face and desolate  eyes bear witness to the many horrors she has hardened herself against.  When covering the battles between rioting crowds and the police in New York, Lee saves the life of young rookie photographer Jessie (Cailee Spaeny). 

Lee and Joel decide to make their way to Washington DC to get an interview with the president before the rebel forces arrive for what could be the final battle of the war. The softer hearted Joel overcomes Lee’s objections to the inexperienced Jessie coming with them.  He also allows on board seasoned hack Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), who knows he’s getting too old for the game but is determined to cover what could be his last big story.

As the four of them trek across the country, with nothing to protect them but the word “Press” on their vehicle and their jackets ,they encounter wrecked and burnt out cars blocking the freeway, road blocks and a refugee camp in a battered sports stadium.  They exchange notes with fellow veteran journalists, colleagues from other wars, including the endearingly daredevil Bohai (Evan Lai) whom they encounter along the way.  There’s also the  disturbing sight of  torture victims, strung up in a petrol station – they can photograph them but not intercede to save them –  and there are the snipers, exchanging shots with unknown fellow Americans in a farmhouse against the background of idyllic countryside and a deserted theme park. Most horrific of all is their encounter with Jesse Plemons as a homicidal maniac in combat uniform, sporting pink sunglasses and a machine gun, asking what turns out to be a life or death question:  “What kind of American are you?”.

This is a very impressive and powerful film, disturbing,  often moving and featuring four faultless central performances.  The almost inevitable conclusion is that, though the empty words of politicians may attempt to justify the carnage, as indeed the president (Nick Offerman ) does at the opening of the film, when rehearsing a victory speech which he knows he may never deliver, when it comes to the actual fighting, war is cruel, pointless and often those who do the fighting have no idea what it is they are fighting for. 

Except as Jessie says, after going through the most terrifying experience of her young life, “I’ve never been so frightened, yet never before felt so alive”.   So is that the bottom line of why we continue to wage war on each other?   Do we only truly value life when threatened by death?  That is perhaps the most terrifying thought of all.