Alex Garland’s “Civil War ”is a political thriller that’s light on politics

Kirsten Dunst stars as an unflinching photojournalist documenting war-torn America, in a movie that never quite earns its provocative premise.

Civil War, Alex Garland’s ambitious new thriller, hinges on an irresistible premise: What if the United States really did devolve into a second civil war? It’s an intriguing narrative idea, made all the more effective by the current polarized state of American democracy. When it feels like every news broadcast is filled with imagery of protests and insurrections, there’s something resonant — and devastatingly timely — about Garland’s vision of American conflict. The result is a brutal piece of speculative fiction that highlights the ugliness of war — even if it never quite lives up to its provocative premise.

Set in a not-too-far future, Civil War finds the country already embroiled in battle. An unnamed president (Nick Offerman) is holed up in the White House, facing secessionist troops referred to as the Western Forces, an unexpected alliance between Texas and California. (Florida has also seceded, and in typical Florida fashion, they’re sort of doing their own thing.) Chronicling the carnage is celebrated war photographer Lee (Kirsten Dunst), who built her career snapping photos of the war front overseas. (Her name, of course, is a nod to legendary war photographer Lee Miller, who covered World War II for Vogue.) Now, she’s come home, using her camera to capture apocalyptic images of American-on-American violence.

<p>A24 / Courtesy Everett </p> Kirsten Dunst in 'Civil War'

A24 / Courtesy Everett

Kirsten Dunst in 'Civil War'

After reporting on protests in a ravaged New York City, she and her colleague Joel (Wagner Moura) make plans to head south, journeying to the “front lines” in Charlottesville, Va., before trekking to D.C. to try to score an interview with the president. It’s a dangerous mission, especially when the current administration has a history of executing journalists on the South Lawn. They’re joined by aging old-timer Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson, perfect as always), who works for what’s left of The New York Times, and aspiring 23-year-old photojournalist Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), who hopes to follow in Lee’s footsteps. Together, this odd quartet sets out on an uncomfortable road trip, dodging bullets and weaving through backroads as they document a burning America.

As a war movie, Civil War is well made, dropping audiences into the shock and terror of American slaughter. Garland sprinkles every battlefield with jarring touches — whether it’s a crashed helicopter in a JC Penney parking lot or a refugee camp set up in a high school football stadium. Lit by rockets’ red glare, the battle scenes are unsettling, violent, and loud, punctuated by brief moments of silence as we hear the click of Lee and Jessie’s cameras. It’s also an effective journalism movie, exploring what exactly drives these writers and photographers to risk life and limb. At first, Jessie is horrified by the violence she witnesses, and early on, when she encounters a man brutalizing two captives at a rural gas station, she freezes. But as the journey continues, she’s slowly desensitized to the trauma, chasing every new skirmish like a combat adrenaline junkie.

<p>A24 / Courtesy Everett </p> Cailee Spaeny and Kirsten Dunst in 'Civil War'

A24 / Courtesy Everett

Cailee Spaeny and Kirsten Dunst in 'Civil War'

But as a political movie, Civil War is less effective: Garland is careful never to explain why the war has broken out but instead is more interested in capturing the anarchy. We learn that Lee made her name covering something called the “Antifa Massacre” but the film never confirms who was massacred — or who did the massacring. Similarly, little is known about Offerman’s POTUS and his potential political leanings, only that he’s now in his third term and has already disbanded the FBI. All that political ambiguity is an intentional choice, but it feels like a cheap one: Civil War feels kind of like a political pundit who likes to “just ask questions,” but never actually engage with them on a deeper level.

Even as Garland’s vision remains frustratingly opaque, it’s elevated by some stellar performances. Dunst is unsurprisingly excellent as Lee, who chronicles the carnage with the world-weary resolve of someone who’s seen a thousand firefights and a thousand bloodstains. Still, Dunst finds flickers of kindness and humanity under Lee’s battle-hardened exterior, especially when interacting with her fellow Sofia Coppola muse Spaeny. The 25-year-old Priscilla actress perfectly balances Jessie’s wide-eyed naivety and tenaciousness, as the young journalist is horrified by the violence but unable to look away. Together, they make an unlikely mentor-mentee relationship: Lee can’t help but resentfully pass on her knowledge, even as she’s internally begging Jessie to run to safety. Plus, the eternally underrated Henderson shines as Sammy, bringing a warmth and veteran stability to the trip.  

But above all, Civil War is here for the carnage, and Garland captures the chaos with an unflinching eye, just as his journalistic protagonists do. The violence is brutal, whether that’s a tense sniper battle on a country backroad or an explosive final assault in the streets of D.C. War is hell, the film reminds us over and over again. But what happens when hell comes home? Grade: C+

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