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Civil War (2024): A Haunting, Detached Insight of the Human Condition

Civil War 2024 movie poster

Alex Garland’s work in film has been some of the most consistently praised work in the industry, with critically acclaimed heavy hitters such as Ex_Machina and Annihilation. While one of his arguably bigger missteps of recent was the horror movie Men, he more than overcame that obstacle with Civil War. It honestly dives deeper in the human condition than any movie I have ever seen before, leaning into the darker more apathetic instincts of human nature. Which makes for a visceral and breathtaking filmgoing experience. 

As the United States is heavily engaged in their Second Civil War, journalists Lee Smith (played by Kirsten Dunst), Joel (played by Wagner Moura), and Jessie (played by Cailee Spaeny) travel to Washington D.C. in order to score a photo and interview with the President of the United States (played by Nick Offerman). As the now seceded Western Forces descend upon the Capital, the ragtag team of journalists fight tooth and nail to get to the White House before the President is killed.

Kirsten Dunst in Civil War 2024

This was a film I expected to be epic but I did not expect the path it took, focusing on the perspectives of journalists in a warzone compared to either a soldier or regular civilian. It brought more emotions than anticipated in a film, more specifically apathy. As we progress through the film we are given insight to our protagonists as they become both emotional but also gradually desensitized to the carnage around them, especially when they are taking photographs that capture the beautiful, yet brutal effects of war. This is especially hard hitting, considering how often we see or hear what happens in war-torn countries, yet often don’t consider how those on the front line (yes, journalists often do witness the thick of the fighting and the horrors of war) are affected, with many often developing post traumatic stress disorder upon returning home. 

Somehow, Alex Garland crafted a human look at apathy with a potent mixture of anxiety and adrenaline. Specifically, during the climatic Siege of D.C. as we lay witness to historic landmarks being turned into rubble and our protagonists struggling to get to the White House. However, it’s the quieter, less explosive scenes in the film that truly show Garland’s creative mind. A prime example being Lee and Joel trying to save Jessie and other journalists from a couple bloodthirsty soldiers committing war crimes. One of those soldiers, might I add, was played by a terrifyingly calm Jesse Plemons in a scene-stealing cameo. Those quiet moments between people, not knowing what’s going to set the other off, is what sold the anxiety, adrenaline and apathy written in humanity as heinous acts are being committed. 

Nick Offerman in Civil War 2024

The performances are nothing short of brilliant. Kirsten Dunst is an absolute treat to watch as we see her rough exterior break down as we see her transformation from a business-as-usual photographer to someone on the verge of losing their nerve in the Capital. It is really beautiful as she regains some semblance of her humanity, nearly breaking down in grief the closer she gets to her goal. Meanwhile, Caliee Spaeny is just as formidable with her journey as a doughy-eyed newbie to a war-hardened journalist. Her performance also functions as a perfect foil to Kirsten Dunst as Spaeny’s Jessie becomes more driven and detached compared to Lee’s character journey. Then there’s the small role of Nick Offerman’s President of the United States. Although he’s only on screen for five minutes (in the beginning and end of the film), he’s able to show the facade an imposing leader is supposed to have, while simultaneously conveying the pathetic person he truly is by the film’s end. 

Another thing that impressed me with Civil War was Garland’s ability to world build. He managed to convey roughly both how long and vicious the Second Civil War became. One example is when two reporters are practicing interview questions for the President and the other is visual storytelling. The “show, don’t tell” aspect is on full display as we see cities turned into warzones, along with mass graves, torture and graffiti saying everything we need to know. This in turn helps build character personalities as we see either their detachment or growth into detachment as they witness the horrors of war throughout the film.  

Jesse Plemons in Civil War 2024

I also have to give props to the sound design and surprising music choices. The way the score cuts out during the film to just allow characters and the situation to organically escalate gets the blood pumping. But sometimes the audio cuts out entirely, allowing for character expressions to fully immerse the viewer in raw anguish, similarly to films like No Country for Old Men. The addition of songs such as “Rocket USA” and “Dream Baby Dream” by Suicide give an off-kilter feeling. For example, while “Dream Baby Dream” plays at the end credits, you can feel that even though the main mission is accomplished, the film asks us “at what cost?” It makes the viewer question if preventative measures should’ve been taken to avoid the film’s ending from happening. All while you simultaneously become detached listening to the song’s upbeat tone. 

Civil War is safe to say, one of the best movies of the year! Its story is very haunting as it very closely reflects reality, especially with the theme of apathy and detachment in today’s world. Alex Garland takes an extremely brutal direction to convey the themes of the film which make it very hard to look away while at the same time wondering what should be done. Kirsten Dunst and Cailee Spaeny are the perfect foils for each other’s performances as we see one lose their humanity a bit in the chaos while the other begins to regain it, along with smaller performances deserving of mention like Nick Offerman and Jesse Plemons. The music and sound design are unique to the film as it allows for the story’s themes to grab you by the throat, taking your breath away. Civil War is one of those film experiences I wasn’t expecting to be as good as I initially thought. Yet it still managed to wiggle its way into my consciousness, haunting me with a new perception of humanity in the best way possible. 

Authored by: Noah Kloss

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