Features Live Action Movies

Civil War

Director – Alex Garland – 2024 – US – Cert. 15 – 109m


Four journalists travel across the war-torn US to interview the President before he resigns or flees the country – out in both UK and US cinemas on Friday, April 12th

The US President (Nick Offerman) is rehearsing a speech, But he can’t seem to work out how to deliver the words.

Seasoned photojournalist Lee Miller (Kirsten Dunst) and journalist colleague Joel (Wagner Moura) are on the front line in the war-torn US. She is in the thick of it, taking photographs, when she spots a twentysomething woman Jessie Colin (CaIlee Spaeny from Priscilla, Sofia Coppola, 2023) doing the same thing, and gives the young woman her hi-vis jacket to help her chances of staying alive.

The girl is so preoccupied with taking pictures that she cradles the jacket in an arm while shooting images with her stills camera. Later, she runs into Lee in their hotel where all the journalists are staying, among them the grizzled veteran Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson from Dune, Denis Villeneuve, 2021) who, despite mobility issues which require him to walk with a cane, insists on being in the thick of it as far as possible.

Lee wants nothing to do with the young woman.

Nevertheless, when the next day Lee joins the press car in which Joel, Sammy and herself are to ride across country to Washington DC – where Joel hopes to be able to interview the President before he resigns, leaves the country or is overthrown – Lee is taken aback to find the young girl is the fourth passenger, taken under their wing by Lee’s two long-standing colleagues. Both dismiss Lee’s protests. The four set out on their journey.

What follows is a terrifying ride through a present day, or possibly a slightly future day, war-torn US. The title and the poster images (at least as far as the press invites went in mid-March 2024) led one to expect a full-blown action epic about a civil war on US soil, and the film at once fulfils that brief and at the same time, proves to be nothing like it. Maverick writer-director Alex Garland here delivers something akin to that otherwise unrelated trio of highly regarded movies about war correspondents in the 1980s: The Year of Living Dangerously (Peter Weir, 1982), Under Fire (Roger Spottiswoode, 1983) and Salvador STRAIT LINK (Oliver Stone, 1986), all of which played London’s Scala cinema quite a few times.

Nevertheless, this is very much a present day movie and also a road movie: as the four characters pass through widely varying, serial scenarios – episodes which prove unsettling and challenging for all manner of reasons. Compelling though all that is, it isn’t the core of the piece, an exploration of the war journalist’s life, and, in particular, the veteran lady photojournalist whose been doing it a long time – perhaps too long – seeing something of herself in the idealistic, younger woman just starting out in the same career. Both actresses give extraordinary performances, as does Henderson.

It would be easy to show the US divided in two by the obvious factions – Biden or Trump, Republican or Democrat – yet Garland never does this. There is a ruling camp (the one with the President) and an insurgent camp (forces moving towards the capital and possibly about may be about to topple the incumbent administration, but no badge is placed on one or the other and the script never takes one side or the other). Both are factions at war, and it’s all about, kill or be killed. Or stay out of it altogether. Or, in the case of the journalists, record what is in front of you and make sure it gets out to the wider world so that others can see what’s happening to make their own judgements.

Early on, a nighttime stop on route to the fighting. Talk, relax. Tomorrow, they’ll be back on the front line. Muted sounds of distant gunfire. Cut to the next day, somewhere in a city on the front line, the same sounds, but now deafeningly loud. Welcome to hell.

A stop to fill up on gas (it’s an American movie). Should they chance it? Lee ends up offering the armed attendant $300 to fill the tank. Round the corner from the filling station, bloody bodies hanging. These bodies are still alive.

Possibly the strangest sequence has their press vehicle roll into a town where you wouldn’t know a war was taking place. They wander into a clothes shop where the younger, female photojournalist gets her veteran hero (“You have the same name.” “Yes, I know who Lee Miller is.”) to try on a dress. It may be a war zone further down the road, but the locals here are pretending nothing is happening and hoping it will soon blow over. That might work for them, but to our travelling reporters, coming up against the front line in its many and varied forms elsewhere, these people are merely sticking their heads in the sand.

The press car moves slowly along the road by a large house in the middle of nowhere, wide open space, corpse on the road. Suddenly, it is being shot at. Two men hide atop one another. One is a sniper. In the distant house is another sniper. It’s simply a question of who kills who first. Which side is which seems completely immaterial.

A bulldozer piling corpses into a mass grave. A conversation with a trigger-happy combatant sporting red-tinted spectacles (Jesse Plemons from Killers of the Flower Moon, Martin Scorsese, 2023; Judas and the Black Messiah, Shaka King, 2021) doesn’t look like it will end well. People get shot.

A convoy of insurgent WF vehicles and ‘copters heading towards the capital. (No one tells you for what these initials stand for about the first hour – or, if they do, I missed it amidst everything else that was going on, so neither will I tell you here – all you need to know is, they are the side attacking the government. Even though that information is in the film’s trailer, below.) Will Joel be too late to get his interview with the President?

I’m not a US citizen; if I was, the movie, with its American locations turned in to war zones, would be more traumatic. As both a European and a Brit, it’s still pretty scary stuff. In the US, they haven’t had a civil war since the mid-nineteenth century, in England, we’ve not had one for the best part of 400 years. In Europe, they had one in Bosnia and Herzegovena within the last two decades. We ignore these historic episodes at our peril: civil war can take root anywhere. Seen on the ground through the eyes of war journalists, this is a terrifying vision indeed.

Yet, the way Garland explores his characters and their relationships to one another while all this is going on, the young woman’s sense of embarking on a career, the older one’s sense of addiction and burnout, watching and hearing her younger counterpart – the compound sounds and images, deeply immersive like no medium outside of cinema can be – renders this a deeply tragic, extremely moving, and ultimately very human experience.

I hesitate to say this as early as April, but, quite possibly, the film of the year.

Civil War is out in cinemas in both the UK and the US on Friday, April 12th.


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