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We don’t know why Texas and California, under the banner of the “Western Forces,” have joined against the so-called “Florida Alliance” in a secession-fractured America in “Civil War.” But we can imagine it.

Director Alex Garland situates his defused bomb of a new movie — it’s more reflective and observant than in-the-trenches terrifyingly immersive — against a backdrop of dystopian dictatorship, extremist paramilitary groups, and journalism as a fading hope. In other words, a world so familiar to our own on the eve of a possible Donald Trump re-election and still in the shadow of his last term. Yet the shape of “Civil War” — which follows a photojournalist named Lee (Kirsten Dunst) and her Reuters colleagues from New York into a martial law-ravaged Washington, D.C. — could fit any autocrat story.

“The film is trying to function a bit like the reporters in the story, so it’s just showing something within a window of time,” said Garland, whose follow-up to the “Repulsion”-esque horror movie “Men” and fear-ye-artificial-intelligence series “Devs” takes place over just a short few days that eschew anything that occurred before. Garland said he did think of “a sequence of events I thought of like a mythology” that led to what we see in “Civil War,” which drops us straight into the shoes of Lee, a war photographer who rescues rookie Jessie (Cailee Spainey) from a suicide bomb in New York City (though the movie shot in Atlanta).

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Jessie joins Lee, traumatized by her years shooting images of war close-up yet at a remove, on a journey with boozing fellow journo Joel (Wagner Moura) and Lee’s mentor Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) to the White House. It’s there that the president (Nick Offerman) is expected to surrender as the Western Forces and the Florida Alliance narrow in.

Garland, who wrote the film in 2020 after COVID began, said he was “selective to what was presented according to what the journalists were moving through.” That means “Civil War” doesn’t necessarily give us a history of the world heretofore now, where what we’re seeing is mostly the aftermath of familiarly apocalyptic images that we can easily imagine.

“If you unpack some of the moments or some of the statements within the moments, [the political world-building is] probably less ambiguous than it might appear at first blush. But I think that’s probably actually something to do with the grammar of the way film often functions, which is to be very, very clear about everything at every moment. And because this is doing that less so, it feels like there’s an absence of something, but I’m not sure there really is an absence,” Garland said.

When the trailer launched for “Civil War” four months ago, the vibes online were very much who is this for? And who is it for if not especially for those of us who feel like we’re already living in a “civil war”? The marketing has played up the film’s military tropes, which are actually pretty muted and limited to just a few scenes in “Civil War” compared to the vaster, more contemplative movie about journalism Garland has crafted.

Something about the first trailers suggested: See a movie that will remind you of the Capitol riots. That “Civil War” may do, but it’s not only about that.

CIVIL WAR, Kirsten Dunst, 2024. © A24 / Courtesy Everett Collection
‘Civil War’Courtesy Everett Collection

It’s about journalists as observers, a last beacon of objectivity amid the binaries (red vs. blue, reactionary vs. progressive) that lead to conversations shutting down. (Though both Garland and “Civil War” don’t get terribly specific about it, which works both for and against the movie at times, depending on how much the viewer or listener wants to be fed.) “I feel like right now we don’t have a shortage of the strong shutting down assertions,” Garland said.

“My hope is that I make something which is compelling and engaging, but the product of that is some kind of conversation,” he added, insisting he’s not making a movie that tells you what to think about what you’re seeing. “I’m very wary of things that I feel would shut down the conversation. So it’s not that when people have conversations, there are assertions within it; there are statements within it, but you have to be careful about how you do that in a way, particularly in something which in some respects is one-sided because a film is just giving something and then the other part of the film, the receiver of the film [the audience], is made silent by that. And I’m trying to reduce that silence.”

At first blush, the portrait of journalists Garland’s painted might feel utopian to any journalists in the audiences — with the mere flash of a press badge or the word “press” emblazoned on their beat-up white van, Lee and her team seem to have carte blanche to wave through hellfire.

“I don’t think it’s utopian … because I remember a period of time [of] journalism as reporting, which typically took the form of trying to remove bias from stories,” said Garland, the son of a political cartoonist and a longtime admirer of war photographers Lee Miller (recently the subject of a Kate Winslet movie) and Don McCullin, whose names inspired the protagonists’.

“Attempting to remove bias and usually not using the word ‘I,’ trying to objectify it or rather to be objective in that reporting, that was the dominant form of journalism for a long time, and it had the benefit of feeling more trustworthy than news organizations that are effectively working as propagandists in one way or another,” Garland said. “So I don’t think [the portrayal of journalism in ‘Civil War’ is utopian]. I think all of those journalists, who are in a way calmer, more balanced, and fairer and more reflective; they all exist. They can be found working busily and in some ways effectively right now, except they’re not as effective as you would want them to be.”

CIVIL WAR, Stephen McKinley Henderson, 2024. ph: Murray Close / © A24 / Courtesy Everett Collection
‘Civil War’Courtesy Everett Collection

Garland said of those journalists he seems to romanticize now, the ones seemingly embodied in Dunst’s coolly measured Lee to an extent, “They don’t have the traction they used to have because they don’t have the trust they used to have, not because of anything they’re doing, but what’s happening around them, which is the arrival, the dominance of bias on one level. … The key thing about journalism is that it has an actual societal function as a check and a balance against any and all governments and government institutions. … I miss reporters as the source of information of sort of factual information of what’s happening in the world.”

Even as the horrific events and imagery mount in “Civil War” — culminating in one harrowing scene involving Jesse Plemons as an extremist in pink sunglasses and ending in a mass grave of entangled corpses — Lee and her cohorts retain a cold objectivity of their own, long-trained in the quote-unquote art of war photography to capture inferno from afar. Well, until at least one of them snaps.

It’s perhaps the most placid Dunst performance ever, more tipping toward the level of a catatonically indifferent-to-the-endtimes Justine in “Melancholia” than anything she’s done since. But that’s appropriate because the character is also hardened by her profession, and therefore becomes a human screen upon which the audience can project their own traumatized response to images of war.

Much like what’s more grandly on the mind of this intimate movie, the most expensive in-house production A24 ever and one meant to be seen on, of all things, the largest screen possible: IMAX.

An A24 release, “Civil War” opens in theaters on Friday, April 12.



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