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The End of the World as We Know It: “Civil War” reviewed

“Every time I survived a war zone, I thought I was sending a warning home: Don’t do this,” a photojournalist laments in Alex Garland’s speculative thriller, Civil War. “But here we are.” Like her namesake Lee Miller, who captured on film the Battle of Alsace and the liberation of the Buchenwald and Dachau concentration camps in the Second World War, Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst) observes and chronicles the worst of humanity. America has collapsed, as the Western Alliance, struck between California and Texas (with a little help from Florida), closes in on Washington DC and a president (Nick Offerman) who’s given himself a third term.

Lee, alongside fellow Reuters reporter Joel (Wagner Moura), New York Times veteran Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), and Lee superfan Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), vows to land the only story left in this wasteland of a country: an interview with the now-doomed president. British writer-director Garland, with his valuable outsider perspective, shoots exactly as if he were making a modern war movie about a conflict elsewhere. Civil War is its own warning home: don’t do this.

And yet it falls frustratingly short, having collapsed into the same thematic issues as Garland’s previous work, 2022’s Men. There, the director had Jessie Buckley chased around a small village by men with the same face (specifically, Rory Kinnear’s face). It may have effectively monsterised men, but it never dared to question the system that empowered one gender to commit consequence-free terror and subjugation. Civil War, too, decontextualizes violence and deliberately tosses the entire idea of power out the window.

We’re never told what this conflict is about, who might be oppressed, or what freedoms have been stolen away. All we’re given is violence. And, to Garland’s credit, he’s made an utterly convincing war film about a war that’s yet to break out, having relinquished the taut control that made his more traditional sci-fi films, Ex Machina and Annihilation, feel so eerie.

Instead, we’re shown handheld but finely tuned documentarian-style chaos, mixing the bitter irony of the veteran soldier with a crooked smile and a pop tune on the radio, with uncompromising horror: a pool of blood on the ground, an open mass grave, hanging bodies at a gas station. At one point Jesse Plemons turns up as a militant in red-lensed sunglasses, an evil man in his paradise.

It’s impossible not to be affected by these images, so close are they to the kind currently coming out of Gaza. And, through Lee and her compatriots, Garland tries to confront the value of journalism and its ability to find clarity. “We don’t ask,” she states. “We record so other people ask.” Jessie serves as the naïf who learns to embrace her duty even if it means losing her soul – Spaeny maps out that loss of innocence as effectively as she did in Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla, while Dunst achieves the reverse, using her innate likeability as an actor to soften Lee’s hardest edges.

But because we don’t know what’s at stake, Civil War skirts the real questions of journalistic impartiality – how much does that ideal actually hold up under pressure? – and contradicts its own assertions. Not all conflicts are born and bred the same. People don’t kill and die without reason. Lee’s “don’t do this” rings hollow when the US itself has directly participated in so many international conflicts.