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Northern Star

‘Civil War’ masters filmmaking, not story

Murray Close
Kirsten Dunst (from left), Wagner Moura and Cailee Spaeny stand inside the White House in a clip from “Civil War.” “Civil War” follows a group of journalists looking to interview the president during a civil war. (Murray Close | A24)

Alex Garland’s “Civil War” has one of the most bonkers premises ever and while it often leaves that premise underdeveloped, the film – on a technical level – is destined to be one of the best of 2024. 

The film follows a group of journalists led by Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst) as they try to get to Washington, D.C., to interview the president (Nick Offerman) during the titular civil war where Texas, California and the Florida alliance – a group of states joining the Texan and Californian side in the war – take on the loyalist states. 

With standout performances by Cailee Spaeny, Jesse Plemons and Stephen McKinley Henderson, the film manages to perfect the execution of this wacky concept.

Now, don’t get me wrong, films about civil wars can be interesting and not as bonkers, but, in “Civil War,” outside of the journalists, the audience is given no reason to care about the war. We’re not read into why the conflict exists, whose side we should be on or any details about the current state of the country. 

As Entertainment Weekly put it, “Alex Garland’s ‘Civil War’ is a political thriller that’s light on politics.” 

This is the sole flaw of the movie. 

The cinematography is excellent. The chaos of the war scenes is paired with some of the best montages I’ve seen on screen in the 2020s. The pauses in the action shots to show off the photojournalists’ photos are perfectly timed and framed so that each photo adds just enough to make the pause in energy worth it.

Paired with that, the sound in this film is amazing. Despite the weirdness of some of the needle drops, they worked perfectly. The intro song built the ominous, strange nature of the film from the first sound. 

But when it comes to the sound, one thing reigns supreme: the gunfire. 

I’m not a big fan of this type of stuff. Gunfire is not typical in my type of movie; I’d much rather have a few well-timed quips. 

However, when the gunshots rang throughout the theater in “Civil War,” I felt them in my chest, just as if I was shooting the gun myself.

Spoilers here.

When Jesse Plimon’s character randomly shoots two journalists, the gunshots are loud and startling. They shook the theater and caused some of the audience members near me to jump. 

As someone who can get bored in movies somewhat easily, this fervent atmosphere helped the already excellent pacing. 

There was not a down moment in the entire film. Nothing took me out of the film, and each scene added to the heart-rushing intensity, especially in the film’s third act.

Though the film always had a fast pace, it picks up even more when the journalists arrive in D.C.

Each moment of Spaeny running into the open fire to grab the perfect photo fills you with such anxiety, and the cuts to the militias and army fighting are just quick enough to make the comparatively boring job of taking photos seem like the scariest thing in the world. 

More than anything, I wish Garland took all of this excellent craftsmanship and put it into a film that actually made sense and had a premise that felt like it mattered.

The team around Garland felt like some of the best I’ve seen when it came to the technical side of making a movie. 

But, if you’re a fan of a strong narrative – not just some of the best action and thrill you’ll see on screen – “Civil War” may not be the film for you. 

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