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CIVIL WAR Unveils the Harrowing Reality of Journalistic Courage

Kristen Dunst has a camera in her hand and she's about to take a photo and has a serious albeit shocked look on her face
Image courtesy of A24

CIVIL WAR is the latest film from acclaimed director Alex Garland. Known mainly for his high-concept sci-fi films such as Ex Machina and Annihilation, Garland's latest is quite the departure. CIVIL WAR is a film about the experience of war photographers documenting a civil war that has broken out in the US. The film has already drummed up a lot of controversy between those who feel it has an empty message and its decision not to establish itself with a political stance. However, CIVIL WAR isn't about politics, no matter how badly we want that to happen. Instead, it examines the risks of capturing important moments in history.

CIVIL WAR takes place in the near future. The President (Nick Offerman), who gives off a strong MAGA vibe, informs us that California and Texas have succeeded from the US, and a divide has occurred between the US government and a rebel faction, otherwise known as the Western Front. We are not given the specifics of what caused the Civil War, but if you pick up on the breadcrumbs throughout the film, it's easy to put two and two together. While photographing a riot in New York, renowned war photographer Lee Smith (Kristen Dunst) rescues amateur photojournalist Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) after a suicide bomb goes off. Jessie, who idolizes Lee and her work, hitches a ride with Lee, her colleague and fellow journalist, Joel, and veteran journalist/friend, Sammy, who intend to make it to the front lines in Charlottesville before heading to D.C in hopes of interviewing the President before the rebel factions arrive. They take off in their press van for whatever may lie ahead while helping Jessie through her first experience in warfare. What follows is a tense, edge-of-your-seat thriller that never lets up, even after the credits roll.

The film features a talented cast featuring Kristen Dunst ("Lee"), Wagner Moura ("Joel"), Cailee Spaeny ("Jessie"), Stephen McKinley Henderson ("Sammy"), and Nick Offerman ("President"). Kristen Dunst is always a pleasure to watch, and her transformation into a jaded journalist who has seen and experienced far too much was the perfect juxtaposition to Cailee's Jessie, who starts out timid and has quite the transformative experience by the end of the film. The film's emotional anchor is shown through Sammy, with Stephen McKinley Henderson giving a tender performance and showing that he can be firm when needed.

Though Nick Offerman doesn't have much screen time, his performance is no less impactful, as it's clear he's the driving force behind the Civil War. My favorite performance goes to Wagner Moura's portrayal of Joel. Where Lee is hardened by what she has seen, Joel is, on the surface, much more laid-back and chill. However, as the film progresses, the trauma he's experienced comes to the surface, breaking open and spilling forth all the pain and anguish inside.

Two press journalists stand back as someone with a sniper comes towards them
Image courtesy of A24

The dystopian circumstances that our characters find themselves in never give a sense of safety. Passing through each state and/or town is never guaranteed safe passage. Townsfolk has made it known that these areas are theirs, and they make the rules, which usually include graphic acts of violence. Most of the film takes place during the day when we think we are safe from harm. However, CIVIL WAR wants us to know that during warfare, there is no safe zone. Many moments in the film show this, but none is more direct than when we meet Jesse Plemons's character. As usual, Plemons doesn't disappoint and gives viewers a chilling portrayal of a man who believes he no longer needs to be bound by rules or laws.

Cinematographer Rod Hardy, who has worked with Garland on his previous films, once again shows his immense talent by combining vast picturesque views of America against stylized shots of warfare. The sound design is another highlight, from the realistic sounds of gunshots to the deafening silence filled with rage. One of my favorite scenes is when our characters drive through a forest ablaze while Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow's tremendous score plays, elevating the importance of this particular scene and what's to come. It's a powerful, albeit sad, moment that I have been unable to shake.

A scene that drives home how chaotic things have become occurs between Joel and two snipers after encountering a Christmas display on their drive. As the gunfire begins to go off, the journalists get in a position to capture whatever is unfolding. Hidden to resemble part of the foliage, Joel talks with two snipers about the current situation, explaining that they are journalists. He then proceeds to ask them what side they are fighting, to which one of the snipers explains that there isn't a side; they're just shooting at whoever is shooting at them. This moment is pivotal in showing how this war has evolved into people fighting one another without knowing who, what, or why they're fighting them, outside of doing whatever they need to do to protect themselves.

CIVIL WAR is a thrilling, compelling, and thought-provoking film that brings viewers into intense action to show the horrors that photojournalists experience to get the truth to the surface. Every performance lands with Wagner Moura giving a stand-out performance. CIVIL WAR will elicit strong emotions, and rightfully so. We are on the brink of this. For the past six months, we have been watching a genocide unfold in real time. Currently, 100+ journalists have been unalived by the IDF for covering the atrocities taking place in Gaza. Journalists are more crucial than ever.

Viewers may not like what they experience if they’re coming in hoping for a war movie that will give them a side to root for. We know deep down who we want to win, and Garland isn’t going to force you to think differently. Instead, he will show a side of war that isn’t often seen as a way to remind viewers of the importance of journalistic work and capturing historic moments for all to remember, no matter how bad they may be.

CIVIL WAR is now in theaters.


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