‘Civil War’ Review: We Have Met the Enemy and It Is Us. Again. (2024)

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Critic’s Pick

In Alex Garland’s tough new movie, a group of journalists led by Kirsten Dunst, as a photographer, travels a United States at war with itself.

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‘Civil War’ | Anatomy of a Scene

The writer and director Alex Garland narrates a sequence from his film.

“My name is Alex Garland and I’m the writer director of ‘Civil War’. So this particular clip is roughly around the halfway point of the movie and it’s these four journalists and they’re trying to get, in a very circuitous route, from New York to DC, and encountering various obstacles on the way. And this is one of those obstacles. What they find themselves stuck in is a battle between two snipers. And they are close to one of the snipers and the other sniper is somewhere unseen, but presumably in a large house that sits over a field and a hill. It’s a surrealist exchange and it’s surrounded by some very surrealist imagery, which is they’re, in broad daylight in broad sunshine, there’s no indication that we’re anywhere near winter in the filming. In fact, you can kind of tell it’s summer. But they’re surrounded by Christmas decorations. And in some ways, the Christmas decorations speak of a country, which is in disrepair, however silly it sounds. If you haven’t put away your Christmas decorations, clearly something isn’t going right.” “What’s going on?” “Someone in that house, they’re stuck. We’re stuck.” “And there’s a bit of imagery. It felt like it hit the right note. But the interesting thing about that imagery was that it was not production designed. We didn’t create it. We actually literally found it. We were driving along and we saw all of these Christmas decorations, basically exactly as they are in the film. They were about 100 yards away, just piled up by the side of the road. And it turned out, it was a guy who’d put on a winter wonderland festival. People had not dug his winter wonderland festival, and he’d gone bankrupt. And he had decided just to leave everything just strewn around on a farmer’s field, who was then absolutely furious. So in a way, there’s a loose parallel, which is the same implication that exists within the film exists within real life.” “You don’t understand a word I say. Yo. What’s over there in that house?” “Someone shooting.” “It’s to do with the fact that when things get extreme, the reasons why things got extreme no longer become relevant and the knife edge of the problem is all that really remains relevant. So it doesn’t actually matter, as it were, in this context, what side they’re fighting for or what the other person’s fighting for. It’s just reduced to a survival.”

‘Civil War’ Review: We Have Met the Enemy and It Is Us. Again. (1)

By Manohla Dargis

Civil War
NYT Critic’s Pick
Directed by Alex Garland
Action, Thriller
R
1h 49m

A blunt, gut-twisting work of speculative fiction, “Civil War” opens with the United States at war with itself — literally, not just rhetorically. In Washington, D.C., the president is holed up in the White House; in a spookily depopulated New York, desperate people wait for water rations. It’s the near-future, and rooftop snipers, suicide bombers and wild-eyed randos are in the fight while an opposition faction with a two-star flag called the Western Forces, comprising Texas and California — as I said, this is speculative fiction — is leading the charge against what remains of the federal government. If you’re feeling triggered, you aren’t alone.

It’s mourning again in America, and it’s mesmerizingly, horribly gripping. Filled with bullets, consuming fires and terrific actors like Kirsten Dunst running for cover, the movie is a what-if nightmare stoked by memories of Jan. 6. As in what if the visions of some rioters had been realized, what if the nation was again broken by Civil War, what if the democratic experiment called America had come undone? If that sounds harrowing, you’re right. It’s one thing when a movie taps into childish fears with monsters under the bed; you’re eager to see what happens because you know how it will end (until the sequel). Adult fears are another matter.

In “Civil War,” the British filmmaker Alex Garland explores the unbearable if not the unthinkable, something he likes to do. A pop cultural savant, he made a splashy zeitgeist-ready debut with his 1996 best seller “The Beach,” a novel about a paradise that proves deadly, an evergreen metaphor for life and the basis for a silly film. That things in the world are not what they seem, and are often far worse, is a theme that Garland has continued pursuing in other dark fantasies, first as a screenwriter (“28 Days Later”), and then as a writer-director (“Ex Machina”). His résumé is populated with zombies, clones and aliens, though reliably it is his outwardly ordinary characters you need to keep a closer watch on.

By the time “Civil War” opens, the fight has been raging for an undisclosed period yet long enough to have hollowed out cities and people’s faces alike. It’s unclear as to why the war started or who fired the first shot. Garland does scatter some hints; in one ugly scene, a militia type played by a jolting, scarily effective Jesse Plemons asks captives “what kind of American” they are. Yet whatever divisions preceded the conflict are left to your imagination, at least partly because Garland assumes you’ve been paying attention to recent events. Instead, he presents an outwardly and largely post-ideological landscape in which debates over policies, politics and American exceptionalism have been rendered moot by war.

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‘Civil War’ Review: We Have Met the Enemy and It Is Us. Again. (3)

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‘Civil War’ Review: We Have Met the Enemy and It Is Us. Again. (2024)
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