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Dan Webster reviews "Civil War"


It should surprise no one that today’s America appears to be more polarized than at any time since the height of the Vietnam War. If that weren’t bad enough, trust in the media outlets that report today’s news is said to be at its lowest level since… well, maybe ever.

Other than war in the Middle East, and maybe the occasional natural disaster or mass shooting, the specter of America’s political polarization is what leads pretty much every news story, regardless of source—from network and/or cable news to print newspapers to a maze of internet messengers.

So we have to believe it, right? Well, maybe. A recent Gallup poll indicates that barely 32 percent of Americans have “‘a great deal’ or ‘a fair amount’ of confidence that the media reports the news in a full, fair and accurate way,” while 39 percent of Americans—a record number, by the way—say they have no trust in the media at all.

Into this atmosphere comes the feature film Civil War, a single-minded project by writer-director Alex Garland that attempts to portray an America that could be in our future—but in the end has very little if anything to say about that possibility, other than it could occur in a familiarly brutal fashion.

Garland introduces us to Lee (played by Kirsten Dunst) and Joel (played by the Brazilian-born Wagner Moura). The two are reporters whose intent is to cover the conflict that has turned the U.S. into something straight out of the recent Oscar-winning documentary feature 20 Days in Mariupol.

When we meet them they’re stuck in New York with other journalists, documenting street battles between police and private citizens, plus the occasional suicide bombing—and reacting in a world-weary manner. Lee, a veteran photographer, is particularly jaded. She willingly steps into harm’s way to get her shot, but she resolutely distances herself both from the events and the people involved. To Lee, the job is everything. Getting emotional over what she sees only gets in the way. “Once you start asking those questions you can't stop,” she says. “So we don't ask. We record so other people ask.”

This is a speech that she delivers to a young freelance photographer, Jessie (played by Cailee Spaeny), who ends up tagging along with her, Joel and a New York Times reporter named Sammy (played by Stephen McKinley Henderson). All four head toward Washington, D.C., to attempt to snare an interview with the president (played ultra-creepily by Nick Offerman).

Civil War, in a sense then, is a typical road trip movie, albeit with a unique sensibility. The four have to take a round-about way to get to the capital to avoid dangerous situations. But the route they do take isn’t easy either as they keep running into scenarios that Garland uses to ramp up his film’s intensity.

At one stop, they accompany a group of armed fighters who are mercilessly pursuing uniformed enemies. In another, they come upon a camp of displaced persons much like those seen in filmed news reports from such places as Ethiopia or the Mexico-Texas border. In yet another they are confronted by a group burying a dump-truck full of bodies, with the leader—played by Dunst’s real-life husband Jesse Plemons—being an especially scary character.

In fact, the scene involving Plemons represents what Civil War does best: it captures the horror of conflict every bit as well as the Mariupol documentary, and arguably even better because of Garland’s ability to create tension by showing violence in a way that feels chillingly authentic.

So much of what occurs, though, is unexplained. Not the fact that the so-called Western Forces of California and Texas have forged an alliance that threatens the federal government. Not how the civil war started, and especially not revealing whether anyone involved owns the higher moral ground.

And as for the journalists, Joel’s penchant for getting the story—and the thrill that he feels when on the hunt—is matched by Lee’s refusal to get personally involved. And both attitudes don’t say much for their journalistic integrity.

Garland could have said something discerning about the state of America today. Instead, he focuses on getting the fake gunfire to sound just right.

For Spokane Public Radio, I’m Dan Webster.


Movies 101 host Dan Webster is a senior film critic for Spokane Public Radio and a blogger for

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  • On this week’s show, Dan Webster, Nathan Weinbender, and Mary Pat Treuthart discuss Alex Garland’s latest film "Civil War," which stars the likes of Kirsten Dunst and Cailee Spaeney as photojournalists covering what is a second American war between the states and the federal government. After that, they move on to the film “La Chimera,” which is playing at the Magic Lantern Theatre.