Review: 'Civil War' shows an America lost past unraveling, which makes it necessary

The sharp crack of a snare drum, shuffling at an insistent martial clip, is what first kicks “Civil War” into gear. The beat is joined by some menacing electronic bloops and nervous muttering, and while you may assume this is the work of a promising young bedroom producer, it’s actually a 1968 track, “Lovefingers,” by the radical duo Silver Apples.

Somehow, the music matches the nervous, revolutionary energy on screen: the unlikely sight of an angry Brooklyn patrolled by troops, hundreds of people clashing in the streets, a suicide bomber putting an abrupt punctuation to it all. “Civil War” will remind you of the great combat films, the nauseating artillery ping of “Saving Private Ryan,” the surreal up-is-down journey of “Apocalypse Now.” It also bears a pronounced connection to the 2002 zombie road movie scripted by its writer-director Alex Garland, “28 Days Later,” a production that straddled the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and arrived in theaters scarred by timeliness.

It’s the nowness of “Civil War” that will be much discussed. The movie takes place in an America that’s been amplified from its current state of near-insurrection, but only slightly, a distance that feels troublingly small. An autocratic third-term president (Nick Offerman) practices a pompous speech in front of a teleprompter. California and Texas have seceded, becoming unlikely allies in a campaign to retake the capital. The suburban landscape is strewn with bombed-out malls, vicious intolerance and, most spookily of all, an occasional town in which everything seems normal, where a blasé salesclerk can be aware of the country falling apart one state over but still put up a personal wall. “We just try to stay out,” she says.

To the British-born Garland, a maker of thematically rich sci-fi films that play more like broken mirrors (“Ex Machina,” “Annihilation”), apathy is the real enemy. “Civil War” shudders with doleful fury. It’s not a “fun” fascist dystopia like John Carpenter’s immortal “Escape from New York” or the Garland-scripted 2012 “Dredd,” but one in which we’re meant to feel the irrevocable loss of something bigger with each frame.

Accordingly, Garland makes his heroes a pair of photojournalists, one hard-nosed, the other, a budding junkie. As played by an unusually grave and commanding Kirsten Dunst, Lee knows from many a rubble-strewn hot spot and seems long past the irony of discovering one at home. Jessie (Cailee Spaeny, emerging from the soft passivity of “Priscilla”) only wants some action. If colleges still existed, she’d be graduating from one. Instead, she hopes to sneak into the school of Lee’s fearlessness. The elder newshound looks at this unwanted disciple with weary eyes that recognize a shared curse. “That’s a great photo,” she tells Jessie, sadly.

They, along with Lee’s writer colleague Joel (the fine Brazilian actor Wagner Moura) and a veteran journalist, Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), who works for a much-diminished, perhaps criminalized New York Times, are making a run from New York City to Washington, D.C., where they hope to interview the president, bunkered in the White House and on the brink of surrender. “It’s the only story left,” insists Joel, even as we hear that press members have a tendency to get shot on the South Lawn.

“Civil War” then becomes a thrillingly dark road trip, studded by moments of explosive tension and dangerous misjudgment that play less like bite-size episodes of “The Last of Us” than signposts of an overall political condition. (If you love post-apocalyptic journeys, buckle up — the tank’s full.) Some of Garland’s imagery is overly familiar, like the line of abandoned cars that stretches to the horizon. He also leans hard on some overaesthetized slo-mo pageantry that, combined with the occasional indie-guitar strums on the soundtrack, threaten to turn his concept into a Statement.

But the scenes that work will get you thinking. Garland is strongest with impressions: chirping birds over bloody lawns, the laconic humor of exhausted soldiers on a stakeout, a quick shot of Lee deleting some of her own photos, a private mode of self-care. In one scene, a frighteningly calm xenophobe with a rifle (Jessie Plemons) menaces from behind red-tinted lenses.“What kind of American are you?” he asks, finger on the trigger, the movie sharpening into something unbearable.

For some, those glasses will be bait enough, a MAGA hat to coastal bulls. But for the most part, what Garland is after is less accusatory and more provocative, detached from the kind of red-state-blue-state binary that would trap “Civil War” in amber before it had a chance to breathe. Do we deserve a democracy if we can barely speak to each other? This is a film set in a future when words no longer matter. Even the final words of power-grabbing leaders disappoint.

At some point, the hugeness of modern-day military hardware, much of it digitally rendered, sweeps in, the pounding rotors of helicopters and urban street-clearing machinery orchestrated into an overwhelming last act. The schism of watching tanks roll down Pennsylvania Avenue is a disquieting vision best experienced in a multiplex, not real life. But the takeaway isn’t exhilaration; the unease is what makes Garland’s film valuable. You watch it with your jaw hanging open.

What of our heroic journalists? Dunst and Spaeny continue a long-telegraphed transfer of status, both actors digging for expressions beyond stunned, but this isn’t a chatty film. It’s main purpose is to turn us into observers ourselves. And regardless of what may come ahead — at the movies and beyond — there won’t be a more important film this year.

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