Monday, April 15, 2024

'CIVIL WAR' - "One Nation Under God, Indivisible..." [MAJOR SPOILERS]

Directed by ALEX GARLAND


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Wow, I did not expect this movie to be good. I was thinking a fun popcorn flick-- a cross between 'The Purge' and 'Olympus Has Fallen,' but I was pleasantly surprised. 'Civil War' is actually a war film, in the same vein of 'Full Metal Jacket' meets 'High Tension." It's an unusual war film because it follows a modern day American civil war from the perspective of a rag tag group of journalists, which is rare. Most war films are centered around soldiers, which makes sense. We rarely if ever see behind the scenes of what war correspondent photo journalists. 
Kirsten Dunst in 'Civil War' | A24 | 2024
[News Report]

In the first scene we can tell there's something very wrong. The president (Nick Offerman) is talking to himself before a press conference. Nineteen states are in rebellion and have seceded from the US government. There's a western federation (California and Texas), which makes strange bedfellows; a separate northwestern coalition; the Florida coalition; and the loyalist division (those states loyal to the federal government).

We meet Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst), a dogged world weary reporter covering a water distribution crisis in NYC with her reporting partner, Joel (Wagner Moura). This is Moura's first major film appearance and he really packs a punch as Lee's tough, sensible, and kind confidant. Whereas Lee is emotionless. Joel is emotional. He wears his passion on his face and you can tell that he still has that dreaded word-- HOPE

As Lee takes photos of the stress and strife at the water truck, she sees a young woman named Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) get punched in the face by a cop. Jessie is an aspiring photo journalist, heavy emphasis on "aspiring." She's actually just some random person who picked up her camera and decide to document the turmoil she sees. Lee helps Jessie and they share a brief moment. Lee gives her a few pointers on how to better protect herself in the future. Jessie sneaks a photo of Lee as she walks away. Lee is everything Jessie aspires to be one day. 
Joel [to Shop Clerk]

When Lee and Joel return to their hotel, they meet up with another hard nosed reporter, Sammy, beautifully played by well known character action Stephen McKinley Henderson. You won't recognize his name, but as soon as  you see him you recognize his face immediately. From 'Dune,' to 'Lincoln,' to 'Lady Bird,' and numerous television shows, you've seen Stephen in something before! 

Sammy wants to know where Lee and Joel are headed next. He's with a rival news agency but he's a good enough friend that they decide to tell him. Sammy is old and overweight and they doubt his ability to tag along. Sammy wants to go to the front line of the war in Charlottesville, WV. Lee and Joel have bigger plans. They want to interview the rogue president of the United States who regularly kills journalists and anyone else he pleases. The president's government is falling. Lee and Joel want to be the ones to tell his story before the resistance and ask the most important question-- WHY? 
Sammy [to Lee]

Of course Jessie manages to catch a ride with them, which serves as the perfect plot line. Jessie is the ingenue. She's the character who helps the audience to what's going on. It's new to her and it's new to us. She's our ears and eyes throughout the rest of the film. As the group travels throughout the war torn USA, there are some really horrific sights and scenes. When they stop to get gasoline (which is a rare commodity) they're met by rough land tumble men armed with semi-automatic weapons. Amazingly, Lee and Joel aren't afraid. They've dealt with these types before. They make a deal for $300 Canadian for a tank of gas. 

In the meantime Jessie discovers that the rogue gas station attendants have two hostages tied up in the car wash. The hostages have been badly beaten and tortured. Jessie is too taken aback to speak. In a less serious film, we would have expected Lee or Jessie to outmaneuver the bad guys, disable the rogues, or trick them into letting the captives go. We imagine that the captives are innocent. They're the real owners of the gas station who have been taken captive by brutes. Lee will figure out how to save them. 

BUT THIS IS NOT THAT TYPE OF MOVIE. Lee doesn't ask the answers to questions she doesn't want to know. She has no intention of helping the hostages, but she does take the opportunity to ask the torturer to stand in between the half dead men so she can take a photo of the three of them. It's a difficult scene to stomach, but like Jessie, we have to push through it. Push our horror down and keep moving. This isn't a comic book film. Lee doesn't have super strength. Their group doesn't have weapons. Of course they can't fight three burly well armed men. 
Soldier [to Joel]

They soon stop at an abandoned JC Penny mall parking lot of all places to camp for the night. Sadly, you can find many abandoned JC Penny and Sears parking lots right now, as America is slowly falling apart. Our stores are closing, our bridges are falling down, and homeless camps line our roads. It's currently happening and doesn't look much different than the world of 'Civil War' and maybe that's the point.

Lee uses this time to test Jessie to prepare her for an active war zone. In a previous scene that foreshadows the future, Jessie asks Lee if she would take photographs of her if Jessie were to be killed? Lee tells her that she already knows the answer

When they arrive in Charlottesville, the fighting is just as bloody and vicious as we imagine. A resistance soldier is killed before their eyes. Jessie takes a photo of a soldier's dying moment. Their odyssey continues as they dodge rogue snipers and wee think that's the worst of it, but the worst is yet to come. In a moment of levity, Joel's friends and fellow journalists Tony (Nelson Lee) and Bohai (Evan Lai) flag the group down on the road. It's a sweet moment that is soon interrupted when part of the group is captured by a white supremacist militia. 
Soldier [to Joel]

My favorite movie villain Jesse Plemmons (and Kirsten Dunst's real life husband) plays a crazed militia member who kidnaps Jessie and Bohai. Lee and Joel have talked their way out of tough spots before so they decide to try to negotiate with the militia men. After seeing a pile of dead bodies, Sammy wisely warns them that these do not look like men that can be negotiated with. Of course Sammy is right and stays behind. 

Joel and Lee quickly find out that they cannot talk their way out of this one. The militia man murders Tony and Bohai because they're not American. He proceeds to interrogate the rest of the team and asks what state they're from. If they say the wrong state then they will likely get a bullet. Another actor could have overacted this chilling scene, but Plemmons brings a serene psychosis to this role. He calmly menaces them while casually pointing his M16 rifle at them. In one of the few rescue scenes of the film, Sammy runs over the militia men and saves Jessie, Lee, and Joel. Unfortunately Sammy saves them at the cost of his own life. 
Lee [to Jessie]

The remaining crew eventually make it to see the fall of Washington, DC, which was expectedly violent, but anti-climatic (AND BRIEF). As she finally nears her goal of the White House, all of the horrors Lee has witnessed finally catch up with her. As Jessie ascends, Lee descends into despair and madness. She manages to push through as the soldiers breach the White House, but dies protecting Jessie. As she dies Jessie takes a series of photographs of her. Jessie has become Lee and Lee has been killed. Long Live Lee.

Joel and Jessie eventually get to see the captured president and ask for a quote before he's executed. As expected the president has no words for the country or anyone else. His only concern is for his own life. After everything they suffered Joel didn't get the interview he craved, but that no longer matters. The banality of evil needs no explanation.

Lee [to Jessie]

The speed at which this part of the film occurs is an issue. The White House breach was expected, but it went by very fast, which concludes the film. Overall, this was a solid film, with exceptional performances, especially by the main cast. Dunst really stood out as a steely eyed indomitable reporter Lee Smith. Lee was basically Lois Lane without Superman or any hope of rescue. Dunst pulled it off flawlessly. One of my critiques is the shamefully underuse of Nick Offerman. The President's character was woefully underdeveloped.  Offerman is such a fine actor and was completely wasted in this film. Also, we never really understand the President's motivations or mindset. He was just some nameless authoritarian figure. 

The film takes itself and the subject matter seriously. It's not gimmicky and it doesn't fall into the trap of popcorn flick. As our society deteriorates around us, social cohesion worsens, inequality increases, and our infrastructure crumbles--we can all picture this scenario. We can picture a civil war. Thankfully, this 'Civil War' film reminds us that the reality of a civil war WILL NOT BE PRETTY. This was NOT an action film. It's a horror movie. 'Civil War' gets it right. 



  1. Good to hear from you!
    Wasn't sure about this one as I didn't know what angle it would take. California and Texas though? Not bloody likely.

    1. Alex! It is so good to hear from you! I'm so happy to see you again. It's been a while. I will stop by your way. Yes, the whole Texas and Cali alliance threw me for a loop!


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