SXSW 2024 Review: CIVIL WAR, Is Not What You Think It Is. It's So Much More.

Editor, U.S. ; Dallas, Texas (@HatefulJosh)
SXSW 2024 Review: CIVIL WAR, Is Not What You Think It Is. It's So Much More.

Civil War follows a quartet of war correspondents in the last days of the American republic as the Western Forces of the secessionist states of Texas and California advances on Washington, D.C. with harrowing results. Leading this motley crew are Lee Miller (Dunst) and her writer, Joel (Wagner Moura), who are on a mission to capture the likely final interview with the president (Nick Offerman), along for the ride are senior reporter/rival journalist Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and wannabe photog Jessie (Cailee Spaeny). Together they traverse the ruins of an America ravaged by war in the hopes of beating the WF to D.C. in order to capture the siege and get the biggest scoop in the history of western journalism.

Garland has never been one to spoon feed his audience, and while Civil War may be the most obvious of his films, it still has very little interest in telling its audience what to think. Somewhat deceptively marketed as a more of an action oriented war movie in the trailers, Civil War has little interest in investigating the overt politics of this conflict, there are no expository diatribes or ideological treatises to be gumming up the works in this narrative. The audience is never privy to what caused this conflict, because (a) it's understood, and (b) one thing that Garland seems to be saying is that none of that really matters. We are here, the end is nigh, what does that look like, is it enough to simply observe, and what does that do to the psyche?

An intellectual exercise at its core – what else would one expect from the director of Ex Machina and Men – Civil War is not only Garland’s most straight forward narrative, it’s also the film of his most engaged and interested in the emotional lives of its characters. By spending the bulk of the film’s 110-minute run time in a van with these daredevils we learn very clearly who they are and what their motivations are. Like the war itself, the film is relatively uninterested in their individual origin stories – we know that Sammy has been mentor to Lee and Joel, and the Lee and Jessie come from similar backgrounds, but that’s about it – but it is very interested in their relationships with each other, as falsely dispassionate as they may appear on the outside.

Garland sets these explorations in the midst of the deafening din of unending gunfire, Jessie and Lee performing photographic post-mortems on the carcass of the American dream as cities and small towns alike exist almost entirely in smoking ruins. The inevitability of death lurking just down every road accelerates the arc of their relationships, the camera jockeys in particular, as Lee attempts to impart perhaps not wisdom, but warnings to Jessie about the life she’s chasing. An early sequence in which Jessie finds herself in the middle of her first gun battle finds her shaken to her core when she first witnesses not dead bodies as artifacts of war, but the life leaving a body in real time tells her story. Crying, shaking, and seemingly unable to continue, Lee admonishes her to keep a distance; share the image with the world, let the world as the questions, their job is to observe dispassionately.

It’s advice that has served Lee well as she has become one of the world’s preeminent war photographers, her images have made change, but she discounts the change that the capturing of those same images has had on her. Dunst turns in a miraculous performance as Lee Miller, having perfected the kind of thousand-yard stare that soldiers often talk about when recounting stories of their times in the trenches. She may not have fired the gun, but does her position and the emotional distance she forces upon herself still make her complicit? Can anyone truly dissociate themselves from the experience so completely as to retain their humanity as they document the crumbling of the evidence of that very concept all around them? It’s one of many questions addressed in Civil War, with no starker an example in the film than Dunst’s blistering performance as she learns, perhaps too late, that it may have been all for nothing.

Lee and Joel are adrenaline junkies, storm chasers of violence. There are multiple scenes in the film where these two temporarily embed themselves in brutal gunfights in search of a story or an image they can sell. Even Jessie, who broke down in her first encounter with death soon follows in the footsteps. They tell themselves it is for a greater good, that distance trumps intervention, even in cases where they could’ve potentially helped. It is a long-standing tenet of journalism, don’t become part of the story, but when it costs lives who actually benefits? A tragic loss in the final act of the film tests those ethics for the entire team, and what they take from it speaks volumes. We live in a post-World Star world, and that – on a micro scale – is part of the problem. Are the observers the heroes or the villains, when does the moral obligation to help the helpless kick in.

Dunst’s Lee shows flashes of humanity early on, having saved Jessie from a bomb blast as their introduction in the film, but she quickly returns to the grind, the mission to document dispassionately the end of the republic. She reminded me here of one of her best performances in Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, in which she plays a woman with clinical depression awaiting the end of the world. The characters are similar, dispassionate, resolute, unphased by the chaos and carnage unfolding around them, it’s a type of role in which Dunst excels, and Civil War is an astounding feat on that same level, there is a depth to Lee that is hard to get at behind a battle-worn exterior that is truly astounding once the cracks start to show.

This is no one woman show, however, and spending so much time with the core quartet could have been disastrous if even one of them was off their game, but all four turn in searing performances. The creature of pure id that is Joel plays a brilliant foil to Lee’s subtle matter-of-fact exterior. Jessie’s arc in the film feels real, as though there is an energy transferring from her mentors into her own body, it is like a law of physics, energy cannot be created or destroyed, it simply moves from one form to another. And while there is a danger of Sammy taking the role of the Magical Negro in serving as mentor to Joel and Lee, Henderson imbues him with a kind of quasi-selfish ambition that doesn’t put him far off from his younger compatriots, if a step slower.

All of this tense and intricate interpersonal interplay transpires within the context of an absolutely brutal war. America is shown in tatters, the militias have come out of hiding, seizing their moment in the sun, The Western Forces appear to be a match for the federal government with comparable firepower and strategic support. Garland called upon an army of technicians to get the job done, and the evidence of their success is overpowering.

Cinematographer Rob Hardy has regularly collaborated with Garland in his quieter moments (Ex MachinaAnnihilation), but it’s his experience with action like in Mission Impossible – Fallout and The Man from Toronto that served him well here. There’s a visceral quality to the photography, a sense that the camera is a character that a film like this requires to imbue the battles with a sense of danger to not only the characters, but also the audience. Equally important is documenting the devastation that this war has wrought, and Hardy’s camera caresses America’s beautiful landscapes with the same care that it uses to record its downfall. He’s helped along by incredible production design by Caty Maxey, who manages to deliver a world in which we can gauge the scale and duration of this war without clunky exposition, the locations tell the story for us, so we can focus on the characters.

Within these larger set pieces and character moments, Garland tells us smaller stories to support the overall thematic thrust of Civil War. A vignette in a town that simply chooses not to acknowledge the carnage by which it is surrounded is a particularly illuminating detour, as are a few encounters with men – exclusively men – who’ve decided to take their country’s future in their own hands, divorced from the politics of either side. There is the evidence that this war is taking place in a heightened version of the America we know today, but the scariest part is that it really isn’t all that heightened. So Civil War doesn’t ignore the politics of the times, it’s just using them as a way into a more personal story, which may disappoint filmgoers who saw the trailer and are expecting Saving Private Ryan.

There is no glory in war, no matter how much our leaders and those in positions of influence may try to declare it so. Civil War doesn’t attempt to glorify it, it kind of does what Lee does in the film, it puts a camera in a dangerous place and observes its effects. It’s a tragic film, an exhilarating film, a powerful examination of our culpability and complicity in the acts we observe. With an award caliber performance from Kirsten Dunst as its beacon, Civil War is one of the year’s best films and will likely inspire much needed conversation when it hits theaters next month.

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Alex GarlandCailee SpaenyCivil WarKirsten DunstNick OffermanSXSW 2024Wagner Moura

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