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‘Civil War’ review: Covering the divide

In Alex Garland's tense film, journalists risk everything to document the US at war with itself

Kirsten Dunst in 'Civil War'. Image via AP

By Udita Jhunjhunwala

LAST PUBLISHED 21.04.2024  |  03:28 PM IST

It would be easy for journalists to relate to the existential dilemmas, desensitisation and the momentum that plagues and propels reporters on the frontline as captured by writer-director Alex Garland (Ex Machina, Annihilation) in his latest drama. Set in a not-so-distant dystopian future, Civil War is based on ‘what if’ questions. Primary among them is ‘what if American society and state are irrevocably fractured’? In the 109-minute film, the outcome to this question is a civil war across the United States, with various local groups challenging the President, the army and the laws.

Through this violent and tense land, a press vehicle is transporting a celebrated but jaded war photographer Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst), her colleague and reporter Joel (Wagner Moura). Hitching a ride with them, as they head from New York City towards Washington DC, are veteran journalist Sammy (Stephen Henderson) and rookie photographer Jessie (Cailee Spaeny).


Garland drops the viewer right into the centre of the conflict and the story. There is no preface and no epilogue either. How did America reach this point? Where did it start and what is the likely outcome—these questions are unasked and unanswered. As Lee says, “Once you start asking those questions you can't stop. So we don't ask. We record so other people ask." 

What we see is that American society has broken down to violent conflict with the administration and that this group of journalists is on the sidelines of the frontline bravely capturing the most harrowing moments. “I’ve never felt more scared and more alive at the same time," says Jessie after a harrowing and life-threatening experience. This becomes the very fuel that energises her to capture gruelling and bloody moments, becoming almost cold-blooded. Jessie’s inexperience is annoying at times, as her unschooled zeal often has brutal consequences. Like journalistic impartiality, the writer-director keeps a distant position, diluting emotional attachment to his central characters, this is partly achieved because the narrative reveals little about their past and personal lives.

A foreboding silence holds the opening scene as we see the President of the United States preparing to make a public address. Garland often and effectively shifts between deafening silence and the sound of heavy-duty gunfire and explosions. The song choices are sometimes surprising for the scenario (such as the placement of De La Soul’s ‘Say No Go’), but succeed in building tension. 'Less is more' threads the film, except when this group of intrepid chroniclers encounters an extremist militant (Jesse Plemons), and during the superbly executed final battle on the doorstep of the White House.

Civil War offers no solutions or way out. It simply posits a cautionary tale. The nuances are most effective and interesting when the lens is trained on the conflicts, hunger, competition, risk and incremental trauma faced by war correspondents.




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