Saturday, April 13, 2024


CIVIL WAR is a film that is politically, visually and aurally challenging. It is vital, important and politically astute.  I think a lot of criticism that's been thrown at it about being apoliticalis unfair and I'll get into why.  But most of all this is a film that sits with you - that moves you - that provokes you to thought and also features one of the most hilarious drop tracks of De La Soul's Say No Go! What more can you want from a film?

CIVIL WAR has been written and directed by Alex Garland who started off as a novelist with The Beach and then moved into writing for film and then directing. He created the amazing TV show Devs and actually a lot of the cast from that reappear in this film. He has come to represent one of the most thoughtful voices about the real structural challenges facing us as a species which I can't believe I'm saying because it sounds so pretentious! But films like EX MACHINA and 28 DAYS LATER challenge what it is to be human and a morally centred being. And now with CIVIL WAR he is tackling head on political divisiveness and everything about the current times in which we live that pit person against person, identity against identity, and tribe against tribe.

In its structure, this movie it is a road movie.  It's four journalists in a car going from New York to Washington DC. It stars Kirsten Dunst as Lee Miller, named after the real life journo who was first into Dachau. This is referenced in the film so Alex Garland is being very explicit about his references. I also think the character is based on the late Marie Colvin.  Lee is accompanied by Joel who's played by Wagner Moura of Narcos fame. He is charismatic and a really good counterbalance to Kirsten Dunst's Lee who is  held together tightly as if all her trauma might spill out if she cracks a smile. Lee and Joel have two interlopers in the car. First, we have have Sammy played by Steven McKinley Henderson. He'll be known to you if you watch Devs. He is an old school reporter and it's implied that he worked or still does work for the New York Times. He doesn't think they should be going to DC but he also wants that story. Lee and Joel are also accompanied by a very young aspiring photo journalist who kind of blags a ride. She is called Jesse and is played by Cailee Spaeny, who recently played Priscilla Presley in Sophia Coppola's biopic.  

In a sense the Journey of the film is twofold.  We're going from New York to DC to see what hell is happening in America but also I think that there's a message about generation Z having to confront the reality of what is happening and get blooded into war. There is a tragic mantel being handed from Lee to Jessie - a toughening up and a hardening and a locking down of emotion. I have seen some people criticize the character of Jessie and I would say the only flaw I find in this film is the final interaction between the two photo journalists. I'm not going to say more for fear of spoiling it but I think I would have maybe played that slightly differently or written it differently.

Our four journalists start off in a New York that is having power cuts and where there are violent protests and suicide bombers. As they journey down to DC they've got to skirt around Philadelphia to somehow get to DC which is the front line of the Civil War then as now.  They're seeing an America that's ravaged and where armed militia have taken the breakdown in institutional authority as an opening to wield their own authority.  

Nowhere is that more chillingly conveyed than in a short cameo by Jesse Plemons, who of course is the real life husband of Kirsten Dunst. He has a very small role to play but it's absolutely I think the the philosophical and political heart of this film. He asks a question of each of our journalists: "what kind of Americans are you?" I think that to me is the line of the film because it hints at the fact that it's no longer enough to say you're an American.  You have to say if you are a progressive or a Republican or a Mega supporter or a whatever it is - whatever label - whatever qualifier.  This is the problem that leads to the War, and I would bet you money this scene comes half way through the film.

The political setup of this film has caused a lot of controversy and I don't really understand why. There is a president of the United States and it is not ambiguous at all: this guy is a fascist! How do we know? He serving his third term and we know that's illegal under the Constitution right. We know he's abolished the FBI. We know he has ordered the Army to shoot on American citizens. So this guy's a Fascist and later on when they're talking about potentially getting an interview with him Sammy who's the older journalist says you know these these dictators always disappoint you when you meet them - Ceaucescu, Gaddafi et al - when you meet them in the flesh they are smaller men than you think they're going to be so he's clearly bracketing the President in that category.

What is I think troubling to some people is that the people fighting this fascist takeover or the two states of the Western Forces are Texas and California that's blowing people's minds right because you have what's perceived to be a very right-wing State and a very left-wing State joining forces in this film.  But you've got to free yourself from your contemporary politics and you've just got to see this is the way the film's going to position itself so as to speak to both sides of the aisle.  Moreover, the film is making a point about how people abuse military power. We see the official United States Army massacring civilians but we also see individual militia committing extra-judicial murder and lynchings and even the liberating WF army is shooting unarmed civilians. So  I think there is a message there about how invading forces act and maybe it's a commentary on what Imperial forces have done throughout history but I think the message that Alex Garland is going is giving in this film is they're but for the grace of God. I think he's making a point that however this fascism begins and whichever of the states comes together to fight against it it's going to unleash the worst of us.

I cannot speak highly enough of this film. I think it's beautifully shot and beautifully acted.  I would love to see Kirsten dun and Jesse Plemons up for awards.  I think it packs an emotional punch.  I think there are images that are just haunting and I really hope it serves to tell its audience on both sides of the political aisle "look where this leads if we don't find some kind of common ground and some kind of ability to talk through our differences in a civil manner (pun intended) as opposed to splitting into identitarian tribes where one side's good one side's evil and and conversations impossible and we are only left with the most extreme options this is film making at its finest and I hope it gets the audience it deserves."

Civil War is rated R it has running time of 109 minutes it it is currently on release in the UK and the USA. It is no coincidence that it's been released on April 12th - 13th - the anniversary of the Battle of Fort Sumter in 1861 and the start of the US Civil War.

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