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  • Writer's pictureMax Markowitz

Civil War


“There is no version of this that isn’t a mistake.” 

By the time Kirsten Dunst’s Lee utters these defeating words of raw bone truth to Cailee Spaney’s Jessie, the two of them have already stood inches away from two men fully drenched in blood and hanging from a noose in the back of a gas station, tearfully pleading for their lives. They will soon encounter much worse. 

No film in the entire history of my life has provoked such physically uncontrollable reactions in me. My heart often races in films with the passion I feel about a film, but my heart always races inside my body. Last night, I felt as though it were beating inside a glass jar and I was watching that jar move through airport customs, knowing that at any moment, the fear would be detected and I wouldn’t be able to bring my heart with me onboard. Alex Garland’s Civil War broke that glass jar and slowly squeezed the wet red blood out of my heart as I died a slow and painful death. 

Civil War follows four reporters (Dunst, Spaney, Stephen McKinley Henderson, and Wagner Moura) as they make their way from NY to D.C. with the intent to interview the President (Nick Offerman) who has become a merciless dictator whose actions resulted in a civil war that’s been ongoing for a long while at the outset of the film. 

The politics of Civil War are completely ambiguous. None of the characters state their politics but it’s not difficult to imagine what they are. The circumstances surrounding just how far into the future America is or the history of how we got to this place where everything finally came crashing down are not addressed in monologues or brief comments. It’s not addressed at all. None of these people are going to rehash what they already know so that audiences can catch up. Civil War is not that kind of movie. It’s just not important and had it been explored, audiences would’ve been severely misled in their ability to understand Garland’s vision. 

By eliminating all traces of politically clear-cut answers, Garland allows us to examine the cost of war from a more sensible lens. There’s no political agenda anywhere here. I predicted one and had an impossible time finding it. Garland’s film is very much anti-war but it doesn’t portray the war in question as unjustified. It’s possible that this war was born out of a need to protect against a dictator rather than achieve revenge against him but we never really know “for sure”. Again, it doesn’t matter. We’re simply being shown the outcome of the events that transpired. The morals of the circumstances are not lingering in the background, they are simply not there. Not while you’re watching anyway. 

From a quality perspective, no amount of praise will ever be enough to digest the majesty of what Garland has accomplished here. I can say that it never would’ve happened without his four leads who gave Civil War what little heart it has. Civil War has a tremendous amount of heart but not on the surface and never in tone. I got the sense that these four people were all good human beings but what makes Civil War so frightening is that the film would be no different if they weren’t. The basic rules of morality simply do not apply here. Civil War features various citizens and soldiers OUTSIDE the U.S. military who commit various acts of violence for their political purposes. Yet, traveling through an amoral film only heightens the reality that we never hear or learn about their agendas. Does that mean we don’t know? 

I’ve always believed ambiguity is severely undervalued in cinema. Audiences don’t always like it. Civil War would’ve been relevant regardless of when it came out. Its release amidst the 2024 U.S. Presidential election almost seems too good to be true. Audiences who feel politically driven and still have a fight in them may find “The lack” of political clarity frustrating. For audiences who politically have already shut down and feel hopeless, this may not matter as much. Civil War is going to be divisive and I certainly don’t mind when films generate strong reactions but this is a film we can’t afford to not talk about. If you don’t participate in things, decisions get made without you.  Garland has strategized how best to tell this story so that as many people as possible will be able to participate. 

Many people will find something about the film to argue about explosively as it will stir deep reactions to your very core. If Civil War freaks you out, you most likely understand the severity of where we are at this time in our country. When Civil War ended, I retreated to the restroom and vomited like I never had before. My nerves were completely shot. I washed cold water on my red face and stood in front of the mirror after and once I caught my breath, I got water and a bite at the concessions and felt much better. That is the kind of visceral reaction that Civil War had on me.  I wouldn’t normally share something so personal but this is the kind of reaction Civil War may invoke and I think it is all the better for the audience to not pretend otherwise. 

The violence is barbaric and overwhelming but it has “Value”. Not since Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty has my body and head been so tense and tight for so long after. I can only imagine how the actors felt. Naturally, they were all exceptional. Dunst delivers her greatest work since Melancholia and post-Priscilla, Spaney delivers a career-best. The chemistry she has with Dunst (Who reached out to her friend Sofia Coppola while filming and insisted Spaney would make a perfect Priscilla Presley) isn’t merely chemistry, it’s magic. Jessie represents the future and Lee doesn’t see one for the world so Jessie’s presence initially makes her very uncomfortable. Of course, there’s a lot of Jessie in Lee when she was her age and the scenes they share towards the middle are patriotically intimate and very “safe”. There’s a monstrously invincible fire Lee recognizes in Jessie and the intimacy between them is a challenging one to pin down but it’s almost a “Knighthood”. To refer to what they do as “Art” would have sounded insensitive to me before seeing Civil War but now that I have seen it, I do feel there’s a certain artistry in how they capture bloodshed.  

Henderson and Moura are equally memorable and share such a sacred trust with Dunst as well. Civil War’s final moments land with significant force right on their mark.  I’d like to say it's unimaginable that this could happen here in the U.S. but at this stage, I wouldn’t rule it out. Never rule anything out. Civil War is genius filmmaking on an admirable level impossible to replicate. I’ll be seeing it many more times in cinemas regardless because that’s just who I am. Yet, I respectfully can understand how for many audiences, Civil War will be a one-time viewing. Those who see it again and study it thoroughly will be sure to gain a deeper understanding of it but this is a body of work that will be referenced throughout this year. Just prepare yourself for migraines after. Maybe even take some pain reliever in advance. Yes. Civil War is THAT intense.

Civil_War-397793862-large.jpg. (2024, April 15). Filmaffinity.

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