Director: Alex Garland Screenwriter: Alex Garland Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, Cailee Spaeny, Stephen McKinley, Henderson Sonoya Mizuno, Nick Offerman Distributor: A24 Running Time: 109 min. MPAA: R

Despite the title, the marketing, and the setting of dystopian state division, Civil War is less of a film about the electoral divide and more about journalism in times of war. It’s a strong choice by director Alex Garland, whose previous film Men was drowned in obvious allegory. A film like this could easily fall into a pit of centrist drivel akin to 2020’s The Hunt, another politically provocative film released during an election year. A lesser film might’ve leaned into that provocation with both-sided nonsense, but Garland takes a hard turn with this vessel to stress the importance of reporting when needed most.

Through all the chaos, the film’s lens is trained on accomplished war photographer Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst). She’s become used to covering everything from riots to suicide bombings. Alongside her colleague, Joel (Wagner Moura), she has set her sights on the biggest story. With the Western Forces launching an assault on Washington D.C., the most crucial story will be an interview with the US President (Nick Offerman) before he is executed in the siege. It’s a daring journey through America’s hellish landscape of violence and terror.

Two journalists at different stages are along for the ride. Jessie Cullen (Cailee Spaeny) is just starting her career in journalism, while Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) is getting too old for this game. With such a compelling story, however, they’re willing to accept the risks. Those risks happen to involve violent torturers and rogue soldiers, more than willing to slaughter the press. It makes intimidating figures like the gun-toting militant played by Jesse Plemons hard to read through sunglasses and answer his question, “What kind of American are you?”

Garland’s direction is gritty and firm, favoring a journalist’s perspective. The tense action breaks for the perfect shots acquired, highlighting how vital their work is for documenting America’s decay. The shock of America transforming into a battleground has worn off, and the journalists react more like they’re in a Middle East warzone. It makes the most timid stop of a nice-looking town seem more scary with how the residents prefer to stay out of the nationwide violence. The snipers on the roofs suggest otherwise.

Despite the casualty of casualties, the terror is still there. Tortures, executions, and urban warfare are treated with horrifying detail and grit. No prisoners are taken as the Western Forces storm through Washington D.C., leaving the press to scurry behind soldiers for the best shots. Journalism becomes the drive, where brief path-crossing among journalists is more about what shots were landed. The hostility doesn’t let up, and the job never stops.

The dynamic between the characters is given room to breathe, and the state divide is treated in a scattershot/road trip format. Lee and Joel share their experiences with Jessie beyond how to operate a camera. The two pros also speak with their mentor, Sammy, with a chipper charm for the veteran with a nose for a story and danger. Their bonding takes a front seat, making their more daring encounters real nail-biter moments for who will survive to interview the president while he’s still alive.

Civil War succeeds at being more of a celebration of journalism than a reflection of state division and politics. The grander reflection of America’s fractioning could have stumbled, and it’s a mountain better left unclimbed. While the narrative sloshes around its assortment of stand-offs and perfect shots, it presents a strong case for what is needed when the world falls. There are plenty of films that highlight the bravery of journalists in war zones. Civil War makes a case for the profession when that carnage comes home.

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