Civil War: Kirsten Dunst And Cailee Spaeny Are Oscar-Worthy In Alex Garland’s Jaw-Dropping, Pulse-Racing Thriller

Have you ever watched news coverage of a devastating international conflict and thought, “I can’t imagine that ever happening here?” You no longer need to imagine. Using jaw-dropping production work, harrowing set design, and visceral war-ravaged camera operation, Alex Garland’s remarkable Civil War takes us on a white-kncukle road trip through a divided America, as a team of journalists race from tragedy to tragedy hoping to complete an assignment in Washington, D.C. before a modern war between the States reaches its bloody conclusion. It’s a tense, magnificent achievement, and a genuine conversation starter – which is how Garland wisely described the movie after it held its world premiere at the 2024 South By Southwest Film Festival. 

Garland’s no stranger to provocative, jarring works of fiction that beg the audience to read beneath the surface and analyze what they find. From his collaborations with Danny Boyle (The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine) to his own directorial efforts (Ex Machina, Annihilation), Garland has imagined conflicted visions of the future that have been impacted by mankind’s follies. This one, as opposed to his science-fiction excursions, feels disturbingly modern. Though the time frame is never given, Civil War easily could take place 10 years into our future. Five years, even. 

The first of many intelligent decisions made on Civil War is to root the story in the journey of four journalists, making this a pivotal entry into the “Power of the Press” cinematic genre. And inside of that plotting, we find painfully honest tropes that fellow journalists will recognize, and applaud. There’s a moment early on in the film where grizzled war photographer Lee (Kirsten Dunst) leaves a bar filled with reporters so she can finish uploading her latest files and pass out from exhaustion, and I nodded so hard at the accuracy, I strained my neck. 

As Civil War ramps up, Garland saddles Lee with a protege. Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) encounters the seasoned photographer at a protest that turns violent, then follows her back to the press hotel. Jessie wants to learn from Lee, who has zero interest in babysitting an intern in a war zone. But the next morning, Jessie’s in the van with Lee, video host Joel (Wagner Moura), and senior print reporter Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) as their caravan heads from New York City to the front lines of the conflict: the nation’s Capitol. 

Kirsten Dunst in Civil War

(Image credit: A24)

Despite what’s suggested in the Civil War trailer, Garland’s movie is shockingly apolitical. I legitimately feared that the movie would stoke political fires by taking sides in contemporary political arguments. But outside of establishing the existence of such bodies as The Florida Alliance and The Western Forces, Civil War just drops us in the middle of an American conflict without justifying the actions of any side. Instead, we observe as the journalists observe, and process as they record. And as Garland marches to each explosive set piece, we marvel at his team’s breathtaking production work, crafting a decimated American landscape that too often feels uncomfortably real.

As a journalist, this movie speaks to everything I value at my core. It’s an ode to the men and women who risk their lives to document the facts by capturing reality. It reiterates our need for people to report the truth. To paraphrase Lee, in one of the lessons she passes on to Jessie, “We record it so others can ask questions.” That doesn’t mean Garland refrains from commenting on the horrors that are shown in Civil War… or by saying more about the turmoil of our times in valuable exchanges. Garland’s layered script, as he mentioned, should trigger important conversations about where society has been, and where it is going. There’s a fantastic scene that haunts me still where the press caravan stops off in a small town that’s actively choosing to ignore the war that’s happening around them. It’s a needed detour that allows the characters to reconnect with the humanity that they’ve lost, and it’s more damaging than any of the bloody fights the movie offers up. 

Alex Garland’s Civil War is a must see, one of the best upcoming 2024 movies I’ve been lucky enough to screen. And if you can, see it in IMAX, where the production values and cinematography get their full due. I also hate to make such ridiculous proclamations in March – days after the most recent Oscars telecast – but I have a feeling we will be talking about Garland’s film, and the performances by Kirsten Dunst and Cailee Spaeny, all awards season. This movie is that good. 

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