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Movie Review: 'Civil War' Starring Kirsten Dunst

Civil War is brilliant and hard to watch.

By Sean PatrickPublished about a month ago 5 min read
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Civil War (2024)

Directed by Alex Garland

Written by Alex Garland

Starring Kirsten Dunst, Cailee Spaeny, Wagner Moura, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Nick Offerman, Jesse Plemons

Release Date April 12, 2024

Published April 17th, 2024

In 2006 there was a movie released called United 93. Directed by Paul Greengrass, United 93 is a docudrama set across two locations on the same day, September 11th, 2001. One location is the titular flight, United 93, one of the planes hijacked on September 11th, 2001. The other location is flight command for the Eastern Seaboard where a man named Ben Sliney used his stalwart bravery to remain calm and take the lead in grounding flights across the country as it appeared planes were being weaponized to attack the country.

United 93 made use of public record, eye witness testimony, and real life recordings of what happened on September 11th to recreate exactly what happened on September 11th. The film's verisimilitude extended to casting the real Ben Sliney to play himself in recreating the decisions he made that day that likely saved countless lives. Sliney is one of the great unsung heroes amid the horror and chaos of September 11th. When it seemed no one could make an important decision, Sliney stepped forward.

I saw United 93 at a somber critics screening days before its wide release in theaters. On the day it was released, I arrived at the movie theater to see a different film and I was struck by a dissonance that haunts me still. Watching people buy tickets, popcorn, and sodas to watch the most effective and affecting recreation of September 11th that Hollywood was capable of making at the time was so surreal and inappropriate that I still can't wrap my mind around it. I could not recommend United 93 when I reviewed it. I admired the movie in many ways, but I could not think of United 93 the way I thought about disposable comedies, horror movies or blockbuster action movies. It was too raw and real.

Alex Garland's Civil War gives me a similar disconnected feeling. Civil War does not depict an actual recent tragedy the way United 93 does, but it has a real life verisimilitude of its own that gives me chills. The film is about a dystopian American future where the war of words on social media has become a war of gunfire and death. A despotic President clings to power while issuing grandiose assurances of his power from behind the podium at the White House. Areas of the country are warzones while others are strangely peaceful either through intentional ignorance or other, more sinister means.

Documenting the violent and deadly divisions that pit American against American, is Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst). Known for photographing warzones around the world, the weary award winning journalist finds herself covering an America she doesn't recognize amid a battlefield that is far too familiar from other parts of the globe. Lee and her print journalist colleague, Joel (Wagner Moura), are heading to Washington D.C. They want an interview with the President, played by Nick Offerman.

This will mean crossing the frontline of the war of the and traversing some of the bloodiest battlefields between those that are defending the third term President and those who have taken up arms to remove him from power. You may assume that the President is an obvious baddie and those fighting him are the good ones, but Civil War is not that black and white. Indeed, the film takes a fully agnostic approach to which side is right and which side is wrong.

Tagging along with Lee and Joel is a veteran journalist and mentor, Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), and a wannabe photo-journalist named Jessie (Cailee Spaeny). Naturally, Jessie idolizes Lee, she wants to be just like her and, in classic screenwriting 101 style, she's a mirror for Lee to see what she was like before she became so disconnected and jaded that photographing the horrors of war became a rote and too-familiar activity. Through her relationship with Jessie, Lee will regain some of her humanity and compassion while Jessie will gain courage while developing the callous that has allowed Lee to become who she is.

Civil War is, in so many ways, a remarkable movie. Written and directed by the brilliant Alex Garland, the film has a technical mastery that Garland has brought to each of his films crossed with a timely and resonant subject. That said, the film is almost impossible to sit through. The ugliness and death is so striking and so effective that I just don't know how to recommend the experience. I can tell you it's technically brilliant and a terrifying vision of an America that appears frighteningly possible. That's all true but is that something you want to grab popcorn and a soda to enjoy?

Civil War is an effective Ted Talk, it's a lecture in a High School or College. It's an angry, visceral harangue calling on you to not follow a path that leads to this kind of bloodshed and death. That's all remarkably valuable and yet, it's also a deeply unpleasant reminder of exactly what we don't go to the movies for. Going to the movies to see Civil War is like getting together with friends to watch the Nightly News. It's weird to imagine people getting friends together, going to dinner and then to the movies where we gather our popcorn, candy, and soda to then experience something so strikingly modern, real, and angry.

It's the same way I felt about United 93. I can't recommend the experience regardless of how valuable the experience is. A movie theater feels like the wrong place for this. It should be something you watch on television or in a lecture hall. Civil War is like a big budget ultraviolent civics lesson. A well crafted, well acted, and ultimately visionary work, but not one I can sit here and tell you to see with your friends in a movie theater. Most people go to the movies to escape into fantasy. There is no escaping Civil War. The film is relentless in the way it forces you to confront the slippery slope of our ongoing divisiveness and anger choked political discourse.

There is no questioning the value of Civil War. But I just want to warn you, it doesn't pair well with popcorn, soda and a night on the town. Civil War left me sad, despairing, and worried for the future. Those feelings are perfectly normal and understandable. They are also feelings that are impossible to recommend to anyone. I am completely torn up. I have seen an incredible movie but it's so effective, it's so strong, that I want to make sure anyone who sees it fully understands what they are in for. A movie review as Trigger Warning. It's not a good time, it's not pop culture. This is something closer to speculative journalistic fiction.

Find my archive of more than 20 years and more than 2000 movie reviews at SeanattheMovies.blogspot.com. Find my modern review archive on my Vocal Profile, linked here. Follow me on Twitter at PodcastSean. Follow the archive blog on Twitter at SeanattheMovies. Listen to me talk about movies on the I Hate Critics Movie Review Podcast. If you have enjoyed what you have read, consider subscribing to my writing on Vocal. If you would like to support my writing, you can do so by making a monthly pledge or by leaving a one time tip. Thanks!

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About the Creator

Sean Patrick

Hello, my name is Sean Patrick He/Him, and I am a film critic and podcast host for the I Hate Critics Movie Review Podcast I am a voting member of the Critics Choice Association, the group behind the annual Critics Choice Awards.

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Comments (2)

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  • Shirley Belkabout a month ago

    " sad, despairing, and worried for the future," is how I already describe our American future. If the movie provides a glimpse into a scenario like this movie, we need to understand that it might be our chance to rethink our values before that outcome is probable.

  • Kendall Defoe about a month ago

    Thank you for this. I am still on the fence about watching this one. May have to watch it at home?

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