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What to Watch This Weekend – Civil War

Civil War is the story of Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst). Smith has spent her life as a war journalist and is now covering internal military strife within the United States. She navigates a world on edge with her writer-partner Joel (Wagner Moura). The two have grand plans to travel from New York to Washington, D.C. and interview the incumbent third-term president (Nick Offerman). Hitching along for the perilous journey are Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) a seasoned New York Times columnist and Jesse (Cailee Spaeny), an aspiring young photographer. As the four traverse through the country, they encounter various horrors of the new reality they live in.

What works in Civil War is the micro-level approach to capturing atrocities. Alex Garland (Ex Machina, Annihilation) purposely focuses narrowly on Smith’s journey and her personal involvement with the killings going on around her. Instead of featuring giant battles, Garland showcases personal, intimate interactions. These moments ooze with distrust, apprehension, and uncertainty. As such, Civil War is taut, tense experience that holds nothing back while making a commentary on the oft-forgotten members of the press. The message is clear that Garland respects their thankless contributions to society and culture. Finally, the performances (especially Dunst’s) feel full of raw emotion that translates well to the screen, giving audiences palpable insight into their induced trauma

People may find Civil War polarizing for several related reasons. First, the film is both political and not at the same time, which is a precarious line to walk. There are no references to American politics or related affiliations, but it is likely that people may make some assumptions about subrogation. Individuals may feel their ideology is being negatively misrepresented, which could prove for an uncomfortable viewing experience. Furthermore, Garland is disinterested in world-building, or addressing character motivations. For example, the reasons behind the domestic conflict are never explained; the photojournalists desire to capture the perfect picture are never explored. Garland merely drops people into dystopia, and the absence of context means to intensify the drama. But while intentional, the lack of background information may prove frustrating to some.

Civil War is a heavy film in ways many people may not be expecting. For people seeking insight into the lives and experiences of war photographers, Civil War provides fantastic representation. Those expecting a broader epic that explores the potential of extremism may be left disappointed. That said, Garland made a beautiful, excellent film full of strong performances. Recommended.

Recommended if you enjoyed: Up Close and Personal, The Siege, Men

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