By David Forde

Alex Garland’s Civil War is A24’s most expensive film to date, boasting a budget of $50 million. It has already grossed over $68 million in the US domestic market, growing to $114 million worldwide. The film is set in the near future and follows a group of journalists travelling from New York City to Washington D.C. in a bid to interview the President of the United States (Nick Offerman), as a civil war rages across the country.

I regret not experiencing this film in the cinema

The cinematography and sound design are particularly stunning, and would only have been amplified in the theatre. Nonetheless, I wholeheartedly recommend watching it at home as well – most cinemas aren’t playing it anymore.

A fresh perspective on the dystopian near-future, Garland makes it difficult for the audience to figure out who the supposed ‘good guys’ or ‘bad guys’ are, embracing the grey shades of politics. And, this is the film’s central premise; regardless of the ideologies involved, the protagonists must traverse the war-torn country, avoiding the looming threat of death that could come from either side. The journalists serve as the audience surrogate, our window into the unarmed non-combatants in this quasi-lawless state. When they are in danger, you feel that danger too.

The main protagonist is Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst), her name, as mentioned in the film, is a nod to famed female World War 2 photographer Lee Miller, travelling with Joel (Wagner Moura), a Reuters journalist. They are joined by Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), Lee’s mentor and a veteran New York Times journalist, and Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), a young inexperienced photographer who idealises Lee.

Lee has travelled all over the world photographing horrific scenes, and she is thus unphased by most of the gruesome episodes she encounters throughout the film. Dunst successfully embodies the numbness that Lee has developed and uses it to contrast the scenes in which she is more emotional, and then becomes almost overwhelmed with emotion; be it fear or grief, to provide a performance that truly stands out alongside the ensemble cast’s range of strong performances.

Throughout the film, Lee takes on a motherly/mentoring role to Jessie, a young photographer. After initially objecting to Jessie accompanying them to Washington, she takes Jessie under her wing. Later, while accompanying a group of what seem to be rebels in a skirmish with another faction (seemingly the US military), Lee puts herself into increasingly dangerous situations in order to get better photos. Concurrently, Jessie stays behind cover, noting Lee’s willingness to put herself in danger for her art; inspired by Lee’s approach, Jessie puts herself in similarly dangerous scenarios. This self-destructive pursuit of the best images eventually culminates in the final siege of the Oval Office, during which Lee throws herself in front of Jessie to save her, sacrificing herself.

What stood out to me the most about this film was the trope of the obsessed artist. As the film unfolded, I found myself increasingly drawn to this idea; Lee’s obsession with getting the ‘money shot’ and exposing herself to increasingly horrific scenes of violence took a demonstrable toll on her. The character of Lee recalls films like Whiplash, Black Swan, and even La La Land. While it was less intentional than in those films, this theme resonated with me throughout the film.

The whole idea of the film, and what is embodied by Lee, is a criticism of [mostly American] society’s desensitisation to violence, gore, and human suffering. Since the birth of television, we’ve seen news reports with gruesome footage from countless wars in faraway countries … but of course, it’s fine because it’s not here.

This is largely the point that Garland is trying to hammer home with Civil War; he brings that gore, that violence and that numbness ‘home’ essentially, with a film that depicts warfare between American citizens.

When discussing the questions they would ask the President, should they get the opportunity to interview him, Sammy suggests asking “Do you regret the use of airstrikes against American citizens?” Airstrikes, to most people in the West, are a far-off idea, they could never imagine the horror of being on the wrong end of one. There is also the reference, with ‘against American citizens’, to the American imperialist war machine and the assumption that the usage of airstrikes against anyone else is acceptable.

I went into my viewing of Civil War knowing that politics played a minimal role: the factions, the cause of the secessionist states, and the ideology of the President remains unresolved by the end. The politics and history of this fictionalised America are only hinted at throughout the film; for instance, Jesse mentions that Lee gained notoriety for photographing the ‘Antifa Massacre’. We are not told what happened.

The effectiveness of this tactic by Garland is evident in the fact that moviegoers of all political leanings have watched it and enjoyed it, leftists, liberals, and conservatives. All we really know about the President is that he is on his third term, meaning that, at some point, the twenty-second amendment of the American Constitution, which limits the number of times a President can be elected to two terms, was removed, or changed.

During their journey, the group does come across a few soldiers from an ultranationalist militia, one of which, played by Jesse Plemons, asks ‘What kind of American are you?’ before murdering another journalist who revealed that he was from Hong Kong. Admittedly, if I had gone on to the film without knowing that politics was taking a backseat, I probably would have been disappointed.

Overall, in my opinion, A24 has once again struck a home run with Civil War; another film to join the growing list of great films they have released this year alongside The Iron Claw. The cast did a fantastic job. Especially Cailee Spaeny, who also played Priscilla Presley in Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla last year, I expect to see her name in many more films in the future.