What is A24’s ‘Civil War’ Good For?

A bloody and apolitical depiction of war amidst a future fractured not-so-United States, “Civil War” lacks a central purpose, and thus, a central meaning.

Take a heart-stopping road trip through America’s heartland with “Civil War.”

From studio A24 and filmmaker Alex Garland, “Civil War” depicts a fragmented, dystopian near-future. Broken by multi-state secession, the former United States wars against the rebellious Western Forces of Texas and California. With the chaos coming to a climax, four journalists travel to Washington, D.C. to interview an elusive president.

Despite its political premise, “Civil War” isn’t interested in social repercussions and causes. It’s a film focused on depicting war itself, in apathetic simplicity and brutality.

A tunnel vision toward warfare mirrors the protagonists’ neutral standing. A career photographer, veteran writer, thrill-seeking interviewer and rookie photojournalist witness war’s worst offerings. Each pledges to dispassionately document the carnage — without intruding. 

The four individually grapple with their vows to not interfere. The film existentially examines journalistic integrity and the personal cost of capturing history objectively.

Kirsten Dunst coldly captivates as the stoic Lee. A photographer who has seen humanity’s most vile, Dunst (“Marie Antoinette,” “Spider-Man”) callously conveys the toll of an impassionate observer.

Lee’s dedication prevents her misery from boiling over. Her dissociative expertise begrudgingly corrupts novice journalist Jessie, a young photographer aiming to make a difference.

Cailee Spaeny’s energy as Jessie contrasts with Lee’s fatigue. Spaeny (“Priscilla,” “Devs”) gives a lively attitude to the novice, gradually grounded but always persistent. Lee and Jessie’s mentor-mentee relationship is the heart of “Civil War.” 

The fictitious civil war is never given cause. Both the Loyalists and Western Forces are purposefully vague in principles. The few breadcrumbs implying the war’s origin suggest tyrannical overreach and unwarranted violence against civilians, alluding to sentiments of self-interest trumping morality and law. 

The biggest drawback to “Civil War” is its skin-deep refusal to state the positions that incite bloodshed. If handled with the same prestige as every other aspect of the film, a clearer message would elevate “Civil War” above its overly-safe warning.

Missed opportunities are salvaged by what “Civil War” does convey. Sheer presentation from Garland (“Ex Machina,” “Annihilation”) hauntingly depicts an America torn asunder by impartial destruction.

Domestic terrorism and casual brutality are spread between bouts of desolate travel. The film’s chilling score enhances disturbing cruelty, cutting to silence or bullet fire when tragedy unfolds.

The sweat-inducing final moments capitalize on the film’s snowballing tension. “Civil War” is constantly in a state of unease, capable of pulse-pounding stress at any moment.

Similar to the film’s political attitudes, the violence is nonpartisan. Pockets of militia are visited by the protagonists but are intentionally ambiguous in their loyalties. Garland implies that sides don’t matter in war — horrors can and will be enacted by anyone. 

That rule applies to civilians as well as military personnel. Patchwork civilizations vary in mindset, ranging from brutally isolated communities to congregations in denial of conflict. The variety of responses paint a bleak illustration of a world where anyone can be a threat. 

Garland’s vision is brought to life by his arresting direction. Shot on high-resolution IMAX cameras and having the largest budget of an A24 film, “Civil War” is an indie movie with the presence of a blockbuster. Snapshots of carnage are painfully detailed and the somber landscapes are ominously stunning. 

The final product is an unforgiving depiction of journalism placed in a grim-yet-captivating setting. “Civil War” is a unique milestone for intertwining thoughtful character studies with provocative and epic presentations.

In seceding from ordinary war dramas, “Civil War” succeeds.

“Civil War,” rated R, is in theaters now.

Featured image courtesy of A24.

Brendan Parr

Brendan Parr