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Civil War

Updated: May 18

Alex Garland's best film ever, CIVIL WAR immerses you in the terror of combat. Bullets, explosions and tension surround you in a story that seems all too plausible in our current divisive state.

The opening moments depict a USA no longer united. Strange bedfellows Texas and California have seceded and are mounting a massive push toward Washington DC. Florida has also split off and is mounting their own offensive.

Meanwhile in the White House, the third-term President (Nick Offerman, always great and somehow perfectly cast) practices for his latest address to the fractured country.

Writer/Director Alex Garland has created some of my favorite films of the last decade, including the brilliant "Ex Machina" and "Annihilation". After his last film 'Men", which I found intriguing but absurd, this serves as a return to form. He dances an amazing line here, staying out of the political fray while clearly alluding to some of America's most divisive issues and players.

His focus here is a band of journalists immersed in the devastating conflict.

Kirsten Dunst is excellent as Lee, a famous war photographer who has covered all the major conflicts in recent memory. She's traveling with journalist Joel (Wagner Moura) and intending to head to DC to interview the President.

Along the way, they add two to their group. Veteran reporter Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) is older, slower and loaded with intelligence and experience. He's covered it all, often at Lee's side.

Jessie is the opposite, a 23 year old budding photographer with no experience but plenty of desire to tag along with the pros. Cailee Spaeny (Priscilla) is excellent in a role that could have slipped into an annoyance. Watching her transformation from terrified rookie to numbed vet is a powerful third rail through the film.

From the start, Garland creates impactful moments by showing you the photographs that Lee and Jessie take as stills within the film, the moment they are shot. It's often a jarring edit, with the horrors of war front and center, frequently more horrifying in a black & white still than in the full color assault we witness.

Garland delivers everything you want in the film.

Those looking for human drama will find plenty. It's not easy watching different groups of American citizens prey on each other. The past personal grievances and territorial attitudes that seem to inform the citizens position on the conflict are all too accurate for our current self-centered population.

If you're coming to the film for action, Garland delivers confrontations that range from one or two people with rifles, to street bombings in towns you know. He delivers three set pieces that are instantly memorable. The first is an attack by western forces into an area held by US forces. Lee and Joel's team moves through the assault as part of the forces. Silence is shattered by gun fire and explosions around every corner.

The second is a standoff in the middle of an isolated countryside with an unnamed, racist soldier (Jesse Plemons) with plenty of questions to ask and severe consequences for anyone who doesn't answer them correctly.

One of them is "What kind of American are you?"

Haunting. And far too plausible.

The final 25 minutes might be Garland's masterpiece. An all-out assault on DC and the White House, with Eve, Joel and Jessie huddled in the assault force. I don't remember a war film in history that's this immersive. Think "Saving Private Ryan" with modern weaponry at the gates of the White House.

Garland's sound design team, led by Glenn Freemantle (Annihilation, Gravity, Wonka) deliver an incredible experience. Bullets fly over your head and through you. Explosions rock you. Helicopters thump all around you. In one scene, a military helicopter lowers within tall buildings on a DC street and unleashes a flaming machine gun torrent that cuts THRU you. It's a proper demo reel for AMC's Dolby Cinema. See this movie on the biggest IMAX or Dolby Cinema screen you can find.

Combined with the blend of handheld and sweeping photography by Rob Hardy (Mission Impossible: Fallout) and the flawless special effects team, the conclusion is jaw dropping. A wow on every level.

Disturbing, scary and riveting.

Moura (Narcos, The Gray Man) and Dunst ( Melancholia, Interview with the Vampire) are both excellent. Dunst has been great in a lot of films, but never better than she is here.

I've seen Henderson in many films (Lincoln, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close) but this is, for me, his best performance. He adds a lot of humor and power as the old man in the group. He doesn't waste those years of experience.

The American Civil War began 163 years ago today, on April 12th, the same day as the film's official American release. Like everything else in Garland's brilliant film, that's not a mere coincidence. Garland has said that while he'll continue to write films, this is the last film he will direct, after his last divisive film, "Men" was so poorly received. I hope not. His latest adds to his legacy as one of the world's most challenging directors.

CIVIL WAR is the best film of 2024 so far and one of the best combat films of all time. Is it an action/thriller or a cautionary tale of just how far apart citizens are in America right now? Or is it a tribute to the best of journalism and the reporters who risk their lives to capture pivotal moments of history.

It's brilliantly all those things AND vital, earning an A+.

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