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Alex Garland’s Journey Through War’s Desolation Loses Its Way

Alex Garland‘s latest film, Civil War,  from A24 and featuring a star-studded cast including Kirsten Dunst, Cailee Spaeny, Wagner Moura, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Jesse Plemons, and Nick Offerman, aims to hold a mirror up to a society spiraling out amongst civil war. In a time when flipping through the news or scrolling through social media can feel like peering into dystopia, Garland wants to crystallize these anxieties into a narrative form, offering a prophetic vision of America’s future. However, despite its ambitious premise and high-caliber cast, the movie stands as a muddled reflection, ultimately rendering its cautionary tale less impactful than intended.

Civil War opens amidst the mayhem of a divided nation, where the President is poised to address the nation on the American Military’s triumph over the secessionist Western states of California and Texas. Amidst widespread disorder, New York City emerges as a primary battleground, morphed into a militarized zone underscored by a palpable “us versus them” tension. It is here that Lee, an esteemed war photographer, encounters Jesse, an aspiring photographer who admires Lee and yearns to join the ranks of war journalism. Lee, renowned within the war photography community, recognizes the diminishing news value in the prolonged conflict, with the ultimate assignment being an interview with the President in Washington, D.C. – now the epicenter of America’s deadliest conflict.

Driven by the conviction that the story outweighs the danger, Lee, alongside her colleague Joel and their mentor Sammy – despite concerns about his age – decide to undertake the journey to the capital. Jesse joins the group, completing the quartet bound for D.C. Their journey south is marred by scenes of devastation, taking a particular toll on Jesse, the most inexperienced among them. As they navigate towards the White House, the seasoned war correspondents grapple with the moral and physical dangers of their mission, questioning the lengths they are willing to go to capture the story amidst America’s most treacherous battleground.

Civil War presents itself as a road movie with a dark twist, focusing on the lengths to which journalists will go to uncover and document the horrors of war. This premise is an exploration of journalistic integrity, the cost of truth, and the human spirit’s resilience. Yet, the film falters, ensnared by underdeveloped characters and a narrative that often strains believability. The potential for a gripping tale of bravery and sacrifice is undermined by characters who seem disconnected from the harrowing realities they navigate.

The decision to pit California and Texas against the rest of the country in a bid for freedom could have provided a rich vein of political and social commentary. The film offers little in the way of coherent world-building around this divide where Garland’s extrapolation of current trends, comes across as underdeveloped. The film’s messaging, aiming for depth and resonance, instead skims the surface, leaving me adrift in a sea of vagueness and ambiguity.

The script’s utilization of characters of color as conduits for brutality needed to be explored further. By not adequately justifying this narrative choice, the film leaves interpretations open, when it deserves an explanation, even if it’s slight. I get it, I shouldn’t need to be told where the story stands but that’s what I needed to hear in order for that aspect to work.  Particularly jarring are the extended scenes of violence inflicted on these characters, contrasting sharply with the rapid pace of chaos for everyone else. This approach not only sidelines Sammy, arguably the most insightful character, but also raises questions about the intended message and audience. This just needed more thoughtful execution.

Garland’s distinctive technical style shines through here– particularly in his use of vibrant reds and Rob Hardy’s dynamic cinematography, exemplified by a striking scene of a forest ablaze as the foursome passes through. The film also employs disorienting sound design, with a soundtrack that often diverges from on-screen events, suggesting a deliberate choice to unsettle the audience, with a soundtrack that often clashes with the visuals. This choice seems to reflect Garland’s skeptical view of the country, a sentiment that’s understandable. Yet, the film’s volume frequently overshadows critical dialogue, suggesting that loudness and chaos do not inherently contribute to effective action or storytelling.

Ultimately, Civil War feels like a missed opportunity. The director’s vision of a fractured America, embroiled in conflict, holds the potential for introspection on our current societal divisions. However, the film’s execution, hampered by thin characterization, a lackluster narrative, and an overreliance on spectacle over substance, left me disengaged. In its attempt to navigate the complexities of war, journalism, and the human condition, the film finds itself caught in the crossfire, unable to deliver the profound impact it aspires to achieve.

Title: Civil War
Festival: SXSW (Headliner)
Distributor: A24
Release date: April 12, 2024
Director: Alex Garland
Screenwriter: Alex Garland
Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Cailee Spaeny, Wagner Moura, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Jesse Plemons, and Nick Offerman
Rating: R
Running time: 1 hr 49 min

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