Civil War review | Alex Garland makes his own Heart Of Darkness

Cailee Spaeny stars in Civil War, which has a new trailer
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Four journalists head into the heart of a United States tearing itself apart in Civil War. Alex Garland’s best film yet? Quite possibly. Our review:

It’s a wonder what people who live in war-torn countries might think of Civil War, the latest film from writer-director Alex Garland. Would they give a ‘welcome to my world’ shrug? Would they perhaps feel a frisson of schadenfreude at the sight of a too-big-to fail democracy tearing itself apart?

Whatever their reaction might be, it’s the realism with which Garland plunges North America into a bitter internal conflict that gives Civil War such an electrical charge. We in the West have become used to images of brutality in far-off lands; when those images are set against all-American chain stores – a crashed military chopper outside a JC Penney, tanks rolling through city streets – the results are indelibly disturbing.

War photographer Lee (Kirsten Dunst) has seen her fair share of those conflicts overseas, and her deadened, exhausted eyes tell us that the atrocities she’s seen have taken their toll. The latest blow to her psyche, though, is that the photos she took haven’t prevented the same horror unfolding in her own country; “I thought I was sending a warning home,” she tells veteran journalist Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), “but I wasn’t.”

The details of what led to the civil war are rapidly sketched in: the US President (Nick Offerman) has taken a third term in office, liquidated the FBI and essentially set himself up as a dictator. In response, the states of California and Texas have broken off and formed a militia, the Western Forces, intent on deposing the President and reinstating democracy. With the conflict seemingly having reached its final days, Lee and journalist Joel (Wagner Moura) set themselves the mother of all assignments: head from New York to Washington DC and attempt to document the President’s collapsing dictatorship – and perhaps even score an interview before he’s deposed.

In the midst of a brutal scene-setting clash between civilians and police, Lee meets Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), a 20-something, budding photographer who clutches her father’s old 35mm film camera. Despite Lee’s misgivings, Jessie ends up tagging along with Lee, Joel and Sam – the latter heading into the war zone on the hunt for his own story. “The backseat is both an old people’s home and a kindergarten,” Lee grouchily observes as they set off down rutted highways lined by corpses and burned-out cars.

Civil War could therefore be described as a road trip movie, though that’s a bit like calling Apocalypse Now a boating drama. On the subject of Apocalypse Now, do you remember that scene where Willard (Martin Sheen) stumbles on a kind of Vegas-style stage show in the middle of the jungle, complete with floodlights and Playboy models dressed as cowboys? Garland repeatedly captures that same feeling of the uncanny in Civil War; the unease of seeing things that shouldn’t exist in the same space. Bodies strung up in the remains of a drive-through car wash lined with red white and blue bunting; snipers hunkered down in the middle of a winter wonderland attraction, riddled with bullets.

Garland’s direction, aided by Rob Hardy’s cinematography and an intentionally jarring jukebox soundtrack, is spectacular in its harshness – the smashes from the deafening roar of military vehicles to utter silence; cuts from moments of bloody horror to country music. So much of the story, though, is told through the contrasting perspectives of Dunst and Spaeny’s characters – the seen-it-all despair of the former and the wide-eyed fascination of the latter. They’re both terrific, as is, in his own different way, Wagner Moura as a scruffy, hard-drinking hack who seems to treat war as another means of scoring an adrenaline hit.

Garland explored humanity’s darker edges before in Annihilation – our collective tendency to seek out danger, to drink, to do all the things we know could harm us. It’s a theme continued here: his characters are driven onwards because there’s something important and even noble about documenting the unfolding war. But there’s also the buzz they get from being constantly on the edge of danger – often, only a few steps away from a soldier carrying an assault rifle. Garland also captures the paradox of war photography: images of the dead and dying are horrifying, but they can also be beautiful. “That’s a great photo,” Lee observes of a picture Jessie has taken of a stricken combatant.

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Other writers and filmmakers have imagined the United States in the throes of collapse, whether it’s the grisly dystopia of The Purge or whatever zombie apocalypse you care to name. But Garland’s handling of Civil War is ground-level and immersive in a way that hasn’t really been explored before in American cinema. There are no alien invaders or hordes of undead to cushion us from the blow here; perhaps it took a British filmmaker to imagine the scenario with such brutal frankness.

Comparatively brief at around 109 minutes, Civil War’s intensity is such that it’s hard to imagine the film working had it been much longer – its impact is all the greater because it expresses what it needs to so concisely, and with such precision. Civil War also prods at something that’s perhaps formed ever more clearly in our 21st century consciousness: that, in the grand scheme of things, the relative peace and prosperity seen in the west after the end of the Second World War was an anomaly when set against the wider landscape of history.

Recent years have seen our societies in the west grow ever more unequal, while the democracy that seemed impregnable before the year 2000 has grown to look increasingly tissue-thin. Garland has seemingly sought to downplay the political aspect of Civil War in interviews, throwing out something to the effect of ‘there’s bad people on both sides’; but make no mistake, Civil War is a violently political film, and not even a subtle one. It’s a snapshot of where we could be headed – like one of Lee’s war photographs, it’s a warning of a possible future we’d be lucky to avoid.

Civil War is out in UK cinemas on the 12th April.

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