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Cinema
Review
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‘Civil War’: Improbable horror?

All wars are savage, but civil wars add an extra element of heartbreak, as writer-director Alex Garland conveys in his dystopian flick

civil war movie
Kirsten Dunst, in 'Civil War.'DeAPlaneta/Murray Close (DeAPlaneta/Murray Close /EFE)
Carlos Boyero

Road movies maintain their old prestige. It is assumed that the travelers in them are fleeing from something concrete or personal, or are simply trying to find themselves. Whatever their plight or quest, we know that miraculous, risky, dangerous and fortunate things will happen to them; encounters and misencounters; that they may feel lost or cornered, and that, if they manage to reach the end of the road, assuming there is an end, they will feel that they have emerged different people.

There are beautiful books written about this transgressive physical and existential path, such as On the Road, by Jack Kerouac. And, of course, there are also films in this genre, in which nothing of note happens, suggesting that the viewer could have been spared having to watch the journey. However, the protagonism of the perpetual movement carries with it an initial charm.

Civil War belongs to this genre. A team of photojournalists travel across the US trying to reach Washington D.C., with the intention of interviewing the marooned President. The goal is to film his last words before he is killed by the rebels. So what has happened? The unthinkable: civil war. The road these seasoned professionals are about to travel, and what they are going to see and feel, is horrific. All wars are savage, but civil wars include an extra element of heartbreak. Of course, this is how it is seen through the lens of screenwriter and director Alex Garland’s imagination. However, given the actual state of political play in the US, including the assault on the Capitol in 2020 with Donald Trump’s blessing, and the danger posed by this grotesque, sinister, manipulative, threatening and corrupt individual, some members of the audience might be forgiven for feeling a sense of foreboding, namely that Garland’s dystopian view could morph into reality if Trump wins the next election. Garland does not provide us with any specific political backdrop to this civil war, but we inevitably join the dots.

The journalists’ permanent tension and stupefaction in the face of the cruelty they witness and capture on camera is well narrated. The group includes Lee, played by Kirsten Dunst, a photojournalist who is aware that her time may be running out and seeks a dramatic flourish to end with. Under her wing is Jessie played by Cailee Spaeny who will take over from Lee to capture the horror after her death. These two are accompanied by an elderly journalist, Sammy — Stephen McKinley Henderson — as intelligent and grounded as he is endearing, who aspires to a big exclusive before he dies. And finally there’s Lee’s work colleague Joel, played by Wagner Moura, a young journalist who protects the group, determined to reach the White House and get the story, whatever the risks.

Civil War
From left, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Kirsten Dunst, Cailee Spaeny and Wagner Moura, in 'Civil War.'

All the actors are credible in their roles, including those who appear briefly. The icy, inexpressive and predatory character played by Jesse Plemons, one of the most disturbing bad guys on screen in recent years, is terrifying. In Civil War, before assaulting his victims, he asks with gloomy indifference, “What kind of American are you?” There is also a touch of sardonic humor, such as that displayed in the last sequence in the Oval Office. And Kirsten Dunst is excellent in the role of a permanent witness to the horror, retaining the capacity to be moved by the destruction she is filming.

Civil War

Director: Alex Garland.

Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Cailee Spaeny, Wagner Moura, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Nick Offerman. 

Genre: War drama. USA, United Kingdom, 2024.

Duration: 109 minutes.

Premiere: April 19.

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