Review: Well-crafted ‘Civil War’ falters at its climax

Kirsten Dunst in Civil War (Courtesy A24)

If “War is Hell” as Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman said after the American Civil War, then Alex Garland’s new film “Civil War” can be viewed as a very loose adaptation of Dante’s “Inferno.”

“Inferno” is a highly subversive satire in which poet and commentator Dante Alighieri compares 14th century Italian politics to living in Hell.

In Garland’s film, the United States has literally descended into a war-torn hell-scape as four rival factions battle for heaven knows what in this riveting piece of speculative fiction that some will find engrossing while others might view it as undercooked.

My opinion at the moment falls in the middle of that scale.

As political as the setup for the film is, which no doubt plays upon the audience’s memory of the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol Building, the film plays coy with the politics of the opposing forces in the film.

In a smallish but pivotal role, Nick Offerman plays an unnamed United States president in his third term attempting to placate the masses as Washington D.C. is about to fall to rebel forces. The character is unmistakably a Donald Trump stand-in.

But, that is where the politics of the movie ends.

The film’s focus is on a foursome of journalists who are taking the long road from New York City to Washington D.C. by way of Pittsburgh to document the impending fall of the Loyalist States to a faction called the Western Forces, which are the states we know as California and Texas.

As you can see, the movie’s setting is a skewed view of reality. I personally can’t imagine Texas and California aligning together for anything, but I digress.

Kirsten Dunst plays Lee, a renowned photojournalist for Reuters, a global news agency, teamed with reporter Joel (Wagner Moura), who are stationed in New York, but plan to make the dangerous trek to Washington D.C. to document the fall of the national government.

Veteran “New York Times” reporter Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and neophyte photojournalist want-to-be, Jessie (Caliee Spaeny), join them on the journey fraught with gruesome, haunting, and deadly situations in this decidedly downbeat road film.

Garland explains the characters’ backgrounds, but allows the audience to figure out their personal political beliefs for themselves if it chooses to. Or the individual viewer can not even think of that and just see the chaos through the character’s individual lenses.

Dunst is excellent as the hardened veteran photojournalist, whom Spaeny’s Jessie idolizes. Likewise Spaeny is strong, too, as the talented hero-worshipper, who longs for the direction and approval of her hero.

Garland gained meaty supporting performances by Moura and Henderson, too, but Jesse Plemons, Dunst’s real-life husband, all but steals the movie in his short appearance as a brutal soldier, who asks the journalists, “What kind of American are you?” It’s the best scene in the film.

The movie is gruesomely violent in depicting the war and actions taken by the combatants, but it is not over the top like a horror or action film might be. That restraint makes the movie all the more frightening.

It’s certainly not a gung-ho type movie like the jingoistic Chuck Norris or Rambo movies of the 1980s.

The movie is incredibly well shot by cinematographer Rob Hardy, and while Garland takes his time in telling his story, its slow moments are often starkly beautiful thanks to his and Hardy’s work. Scenes are beautifully shot although they often depict horrible actions.

For me the film fell apart in the final act as our journalists finally reach Washington D.C. and maneuver themselves in position to document the president and his administration’s overthrow.

The choice of Dunst’s character freezing up amongst the fray and Spaeney’s character showing unrestrained and foolish valor is just too much of a stretch for a film that strives for realism and authenticity.

Dunst’s character does regain her composure at the climax of the film, but her act of redemption just seems out of place in a sequence that reminded me of Will Munny’s unrealistic turn in the Clint Eastwood Western “The Unforgiven,” but unfortunately not in a good way.

There is much to admire in Garland’s film, but I can definitely understand the mixed reaction the movie is receiving.

For me, “Civil War” is a well-crafted movie that fell apart in the end. Ultimately, it’s not my cup of tea, but I can certainly understand why some admire it.

(R) 1 hr. 49 min.
Grade: B-

New in Local Theaters – April 12, 2024

  • Civil War (R) 1 hr. 49 min (trailer)
    AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Pinnacle, Malco Towne, Skylight
  • Arcadian (NR) 1 hr. 31 min. (trailer)
    AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Towne
  • The Long Game (PG) 1 hr. 52 min. (trailer)
    AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Pinnacle
  • Sting (R) 1 hr. 31 min. (trailer)
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  • Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter is Dead (R) 1 hr. 39 min. (trailer)
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Classic Corner – The Producers

No one does satire like Mel Brooks.

Whether it’s in masterpieces like “Blazing Saddles” or “Young Frankenstein” or lesser efforts like “History of the World Part 1” or “Spaceballs,” Brooks’ films have tickled our collective funny bone for nearly 60 years with a zany, sassy brand of humor that never grows old.

Brooks’ first feature, “The Producers” has aged like fine wine, and is still as hilarious as ever.

Brooks had a long career as a humorist, comedian, and TV writer for “Your Show of Shows” and “Get Smart” before taking his act to the big screen with “The Producers.”

The zany film starring Zero Mostel as down-and-out Broadway producer Max Bialystock and Gene Wilder as his manic accountant Leo Bloom depicts the two conspiring to produce a play so bad that it will close down after a single performance, allowing them to make off with the proceeds after overselling shares of the show.

However, their odious production “Springtime For Hitler” is hailed as a hilarious satire rather than panned as the apologetic musical stink bomb it was intended to be.

Kenneth Mars plays Franz, the ex-Nazi playwright, who becomes murderously offended when he learns his work is generating laughs instead of empathy for Hitler, while Dick Shawn plays Lorenzo St. DuBois, the acid-head actor who plays der Fuhrer in the play.

The material behind the film was so funny and solid that in 2001 Brooks reworked it into an acclaimed Broadway musical. In 2005, he then adapted that musical into a film starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick.

The reboot is funny, but the original is not only hilarious but it also opened the door to a brand of bawdy and self-referential humor and satire that has influenced comedy on the big and small screen forever after.

Marvel’s upcoming third film in the “Deadpool” franchise “Deadpool & Wolverine” is the spiritual grandson of the type of comedy Brooks pushed to the forefront with films like “The Producers.”