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Civil War: Garland’s Dystopian Road Trip Struggles with Big Ideas

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Now playing at the Fargo Theatre, Alex Garland’s “Civil War” explores the repercussions of a society torn apart by ideological conflict through the lenses of frontline photojournalists. With a cast led by Kirsten Dunst, the film has really big ideas but struggles to meet them, instead relying on a disjointed narrative and underdeveloped characters.

Dunst’s Lee is the heart of the film; a photojournalist known for her ability to remarkably capture the horrors of war, we get the sense early on that nothing can stop Lee from being in the right place at the right time for “the shot.” That is until we meet Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), an eager newcomer who hitches a ride with Lee and her team and gets a very abrupt lesson in what it means to truly be a part of the action. Together with fellow members of the press Joel (Wagner Moura) and Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), their trip from New York to Washington, D.C. serves as the breeding ground for sacrifice, determination, and several very obviously crafted run-ins with Americans of differing beliefs.

Civil War | Official Trailer 2 HD | A24

“Civil War” isn’t built to support either of the war’s sides, much to the detriment of the film’s narrative. It also never seems like it’s positioned anywhere in the middle. Garland may be trying to present an unbiased view, like many members of the press attempt to do, but this lack of a clear point of view results in a film that feels sloppy, forced, and underwhelming.

The stakes are rarely clear, other than the intrinsic understanding of the threats of survival. It’s during the film’s third act when we finally get a glimpse of what “Civil War” could be if the screenplay had been given one more rewrite or Garland had been given a little more time to bake his vision. But even it leaves you confused by how you’re “supposed” to feel, and not in a clever way.

Garland, who made a name for himself with the visually spectacular “Ex Machina,” does his best to provide us with a film full of a palpable sense of tension. There are several well-crafted sequences that will have you on the edge of your seat (and even one moment when I audibly gasped). The film’s sound design is top-notch and its performances supreme.

Those elements aren’t enough, however, to elevate the film beyond a very by-the-books road movie stuck between cleverly choreographed scenes of domestic war. Dunst deserves better!

Civil War (2024)
Top-notch tech with a disjointed narrative
Really big ideas but struggles to meet them, instead relying on a disjointed narrative and underdeveloped characters.
Overall Enjoyment
Music and Sound
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