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Civil War

Year: 2024
Production Co: A24
Director: Alex Garland
Writer: Alex Garland
Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Cailee Spaeny, Wagner Moura, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Nick Offerman

War has a long and complicated history on screen. It can be portrayed with the fearsome activity and movement it contains and become an action movie – especially if it's as overchoreographed as most films in the action genre are. Or it can be a philosophical treatise on man's inhumanity to man that isn't about the action at all.

Civil War is something quite different. Coming from A24 (or at least bought for distribution by them) it was never going to be a three act structure war movie even if – being an Alex Garland film – it was destined to have a sheen of authenticity and pull no punches.

What I was most surprised about however was that it wasn't a movie about war but about journalism. It follows a small gang of war photographers and correspondents as they cross a very dangerous America after it's plunged into the conflict of the title.

Crucially, and even though they know what's going on and who's on which side by virtue of their jobs, we're frequently lost in the fog of war along with them, not knowing who they're going to run into around the next bend or which direction the next attack is going to come from they have to try and capture with bullets whizzing overhead.

It's less important in Garland's script – and therefore to the viewer – who's right, who's wrong or even how it started, and more concerned with the mood in the countryside the protagonists are trying to document.

We meet Lee (Kirsten Dunst, gamely looking not just her age but as shopworn as you'd expect someone in her line of work to look), a legendary war journalist covering a protest in Brooklyn with her partner, the writer Joel (Wagner Moura).

She spots an inexperienced young photographer in the crowd, Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), and saves her from certain death when a protestor carrying an American flag rushes into the melee and detonates a suicide bomb.

Later than night Jessie approaches the tired, barely-interested Lee in the hotel a cadre of war journalists are staying at, expressing her admiration and asking if they can work together.

Having already sparred with friend and elder statesman correspondent corrspondent Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), Lee is in no mood and goes upstairs to bed to prepare for a long trip her and Joel are taking the next day. They're bound for the White House to try and get an interview with the beleaguered President (Nick Offerman).

But she's disgusted in her partner next morning when she discovers he's offered a lift to both Sammy and Jessie, Lee not having wanted to protect the over-the-hill older man or deal with the ball and chain the young girl's inexperience will undoubtedly become.

But the foursome set off to find pockets of war-town America where law and order has broken down and murderous brutality rules and where they can only hope the general decency of the killers they meet win out.

If it's not two enemy combatants strung up in a gas station car wash beaten half to death it's a small group of soldiers in the middle of nowhere who mete out executions on a whim (led by a terrifying Jesse Plemons in his only scene).

As they arrive in Washington DC you get more of a sense of the larger picture – California and Texas have apparently seceded from the Union and teamed up to form a Western alliance that's made its way across the country and is about to descend on the capital and win the whole war.

And as Lee, Jessie and Joel find themselves embedded with a small squad of soldiers penetrating the streets and then the White House itself, the movie hews closer to the action genre, all while Garland doesn't for a single instant forget to depict how terrifying and violent war is. Every automatic weapon round is shocking in its loudness and suddenness and the randomness of death in the thick of it all is awful.

There's a distance between you and what's going on because the dialogue between the characters – experts in what they're seeing and documenting – make no concessions to your lack of knowledge, and you often struggle to keep up with who's killing who and why. In the end all that's sometimes left is the swiftness of death and the people who are inured to it.

But however frustrating that sometimes is while you watch it, I realised afterward it might actually be a feature rather than a bug. Garland's script and direction might want to keep you at arm's length because you're the outside observer and this kind of thing is inherently hard to understand, not containing clear cut good guys and bad guys like generations of movies have taught us to expect.

But even if you ignore all that and consider the technical aspects of depicting modern battle on screen it's still incredibly accomplished, appearing as authentic and realistic as it would be if an advanced military infrastructure like that of America did actually come to this.

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