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'Civil War' review: Kirsten Dunst & Wagner Moura capture the chaos in Alex Garland's thriller

Stephen McKinley Henderson, Kirsten Dunst, Cailee Spaeny and Wagner Moura driving in a car marked with the word ''Press''

Take a picture or hundred, they'll last longer than the idiocy that humans are so very capable of. Writer-director Alex Garland paints the United States mostly red but also white and blue with action thriller Civil War, set in a divided America in near future as the titular war has been raging on. It has split the country into sections controlled by different armed forces, such as Western Forces that are seemingly heading towards Washington D.C. where the government forces are in control, protecting the unnamed president (portrayed by Nick Offerman). A group of photojournalists—renowned Lee (Kirsten Dunst), her pal Joel (Wagner Moura), Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and newbie Jessie (Cailee Spaeny)—embark on an unpredictable road trip across the east, hoping to capture the rebellion and score an interview with the president before his fall from the throne, which appears to be inevitable at this point.

What might be a bit surprising considering the explosive title and setup is the somewhat poised and observant angle that Garland takes with the movie. Apolitical might be a misleading word to use, particularly when you see the last few images, but our main characters' journey towards the epicentre of the country's turmoil features characters and groups whose affiliations are left intentionally unclear, leaving us to approach many of them with our preconceptions.

That creates occasionally a few thrilling and interesting moments but it also underlines the film's biggest flaws, which are mostly about those characters we follow. Their significance ranges from hollow vessels to half-thought ideas who are here just to execute the plot. At times, Civil War engages in a celebration of photojournalists documenting life and death but primarily fails in doing so; it's a problem when their ultimate fates feel careless in terms of the writing and how they don't impact you emotionally. Sure, Civil War draws some attention to the numbing normalcy of seeing violent images but in movies such as this you're still dealing with people first and foremost. Even the talented cast can't turn their characters into anything more than bystanders.

It's therefore yet another surprise that Garland succeeds more with his directorial skills, knowing his pedigree as a writer. Civil War gets more points across with its visual and auditory storytelling when the characters are involved in situations rather than commenting on them as DoP Rob Hardy's camera questions a viewer's own perspective on the chaos while the unrelenting soundscape—alongside composers Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow's doomsday score—effectively expands on and morphs said chaos with gunfire, explosions, silence and camera shutter sounds. A specific highlight on that front is the group's confrontation with an unnamed, armed nationalist (Jesse Plemons) where the tension is at an all-time high. All you want in that situation is the comfort of silence whilst he and his group are only interested in making noise. Plemons provides that noise with different levels of intimidation in his excellent, short outing.

You walk away from the movie thinking about those haunting compositions, facial expressions and the destruction left behind, less so about what it's actually trying to say about American politics or Americans finally facing the kind of violence they cheer on elsewhere in the world. In that regard, its blade is quite dull, to say the least. And yes, that's mostly fine since we follow photographers, but you do slightly crave some kind of emotional or intellectual exercise that moves you once you begin to see images of them moving across the screen 24 frames per second. ''Fine'' or ''occasionally thrilling'' presumably wasn't the goal here.

Smileys: Directing, sound editing

Frowneys: Characterisation

Shaking like a Lee seeing this warfare.


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