Civil War

Author-turned-filmmaker Alex Garland adds another unforgettable movie to his directorial resume, diving into a divided America with Kirsten Dunst playing a war photojournalist.
Sarah Ward
Published on April 11, 2024


Civil War is not a relaxing film, either for its characters or viewers, but writer/director Alex Garland (Men) does give Kirsten Dunst (The Power of the Dog) a moment to lie down among the flowers. She isn't alone among the movie's stars on her stomach on a property filled with Christmas decorations en route from New York to Washington DC. Also, with shots being fired back and forth, no one is in de-stressing mode. For viewers of Dunst's collaborations with Sofia Coppola, however — a filmmaker that her Civil War co-star Cailee Spaeny just played Priscilla Presley for in Priscilla — the sight of her face beside grass and blooms was always going to recall The Virgin Suicides. Twenty-five years have now passed since that feature, which Garland nods to as a handy piece of intertextual shorthand. As the camera's focus shifts between nature and people, there's not even a tiny instant of bliss among this sorrow, nor will there ever be, as there was the last time that Dunst was framed in a comparable fashion.

Instead, Civil War tasks its lead with stepping into the shoes of a seasoned war photographer in the middle of the violent US schism that gives the movie its name (and, with January 6, 2021 so fresh in everyone's memories, into events that could very well be happening in a version of right now). The US President (Nick Offerman, Origin) is into his third term after refusing to leave office, and the fallout is both polarising and immense. Think: bombed cities, suicide attackers, death squads, torture, lynchings, ambushes, snipers, shuttering the FBI, California and Texas inexplicably forming an alliance to fight back, Florida making its own faction, journalists killed on sight, refugee camps, deserted highways, checkpoints, resistance fighters, mass graves and, amid the rampant anarchy, existence as America currently knows it clearly obliterated. (Asking "what kind of American are you?" barely seems a stretch, though.) The front line is in Charlottesville, but Dunst's Lee Smith is destined for the White House with Reuters reporter Joel (Wagner Moura, Mr & Mrs Smith), where they're hoping to evade the lethal anti-media sentiment to secure an interview with the leader who has torn the country apart.

That Dunst's character, nor anyone, will never be able to shake the chaos observed and experienced, no matter the no-nonsense demeanour sported, couldn't be more evident from Civil War's opening. This is a raw and deeply resonant movie about trauma, sources for which fill its chillingly realistic visuals constantly, as Garland and cinematographer Rob Hardy (returning from all of the filmmaker's past helming work, including Ex Machina and Annihilation) bring to the screen with haunting immediacy.  It's also about desensitisation to that onslaught, for Garland's players and audiences alike. Combine both, even if Lee ignores the personal impact, and you get someone who'll never feel the calm that should accompany lying on a lawn in different circumstances — because the time when she'd soak that in, and the person who could do just that, are long gone. You also get someone so accustomed being surrounded by nightmarish horror that she's no longer aware of what she's lost.

Garland's fourth film behind the lens is a probingly complex character study as well. It's a snapshot of a dystopia with far more potential to come immediately true than most such tales — and it gives America and its volatile political reality the filmic treatment usually reserved for almost anywhere else — but it's always also an unpacking of what it means to spend your life immortalising humanity at its worst; pics and it definitely did happen. Navigating the ethics of the gig, Lee is adamant that the job is to chronicle, not to intervene. "We take pictures so others can ask these questions," she advises. Everything about the performance behind not just the line but the figure lives and breathes that idea. That said, she's also as firm in her belief that what she does should spark pause. "Every time I survived a war zone, I thought I was sending a warning home: don't do this," Lee says to Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson, Beau Is Afraid), a New York Times veteran and fellow member of the movie's travelling party. "But here we are," she continues with a sigh.

Garland gives Dunst another contrast beyond referencing one of her prior roles: Spaeny's Jessie. (That Civil War arrives so soon after Priscilla, which Dunst recommended Spaeny to Coppola for, adds inescapable emphasis.) Introduced being saved by Lee when they first meet in the thick of a brutal fray, the green as green — and keen as keen — wide-eyed 23-year-old freelancer is similarly snapping the conflict, learning as she's going and convincing Joel to let her tag along. Her vast range of emotions couldn't be in greater opposition to Lee's dispassion. "I've never been so scared in my entire life. And I've never felt more alive," Jessie notes after the movie's most intense scene, an unforgettable nerve-shredder where the foursome and a couple of colleagues (Ahsoka's Nelson Lee and The Brothers Sun's Evan Lai) cross paths with a cruel group of soldiers (led by Dunst's IRL husband Jesse Plemons, Killers of the Flower Moon).

No one needs to be familiar with Dunst and Spaeny's cinematic history, and their echoes, to feel the weight of what Civil War is portraying. Spotting the array of cast members from Garland's 2020 sci-fi/thriller TV series Devs — Spaeny, Henderson, Offerman, Sonoya Mizuno (House of the Dragon) as an embedded British correspondent, Jin Ha (Pachinko) as a sharpshooter and Karl Glusman (The Idol) as a spotter — also isn't a must to understand that the author-turned-filmmaker is in his element. Garland has always been fascinated by how folks react to humanity's inherent lust for control and power, whether perpetuating it, fleeing it, being victimised by it or getting it on the record. That was true when he was writing novel The Beach, then penning the screenplays for 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go and Dredd, too. Indeed, as Lee watches on and documents, Dunst virtually plays her director's in-film surrogate.

For all of the ways that Civil War can be linked back to now, to recently, to not mere fiction or conjecture, Garland isn't here to overtly connect dots or take sides; he also began writing his script in 2020, pre-dating the Capitol attack. He knows as a given, as he gleans that everyone will, that fractures have become an entrenched part of the US. As intelligent as it is urgent, Civil War is a cautionary tale, then, but never a source of answers. What it sees is the loss, the toll and the consequences when democracy shatters, all through people, aka Lee and company, including the devastation of such grimness becoming a normality. Making The Virgin Suicides come to mind serves the picture in another way, reminding of a stunning Dunst performance laced with unflinching pain just as she's giving another one at the heart of this arresting and searing feature.


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