Civil War (2024)

I picked up an important lesson from a shocker of a scene in Civil War, probably the most unnerving scene in the entire movie for me. If I ever find myself left high and dry in a war torn America with a thug pointing a M16 in my face and if he were to ask me where I am from, I shall not answer “Singapore” for I will most surely eat a bullet. I shall answer him with all the enthusiasm I can muster that I am from Chinatown, San Francisco. For that, I might stand a chance.

Civil War is a helluva sensory experience, a 110-minute heart-parked-in-my-mouth action extravaganza with nada celebration of any form. I also didn’t get any war-is-terrible jingoism thrust into my brain. Writer-director Alex Garland has crafted a very unique war film that never screams the usual rhetoric. Really… since when have you known Garland to do the usual thing? The guy has always gone off tangent with his storytelling. That said, Garland doesn’t get placed in the echelon of great filmmakers because there are strong echoes of other films in his, like the opening suicide bomber scene will have you shout Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men and the whole road movie narrative resembles Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. That’s just two and there are others. Garland’s skill is in weaving all these borrowed scenes into something potent and powerful.

Instead of drawing on a huge tapestry characters, Garland chooses to focus on three journalists and a wannabe. The focus is ever tight on these four: a celebrated war photo-journalist named Lee (Kirsten Dunst), fellow journalist Joel (Wagner Moura), a seasoned journalist writing for what’s left of The New York Times, Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and an eager beaver worshipper of Lee named Jessie (Cailee Spaeny).

We will witness the devastation of an America ravaged by civil war through their eyes. Garland seldom colours outside the lines surrounding these four, preferring to interrogate what they do. They are not depicted as journalists with noble aspirations, but rather as journalists out for the biggest scoop – a prized photo of men getting shot up or getting an interview with the President before he gets pumped full of lead.

As the four of them journey across an embattled America, they will encounter all forms of danger where any careless moment can lead to death. Jessie at one point will say she also feels more alive than ever. These fraught with danger moments can become episodic but the movie never falls into that trap and each action sequence is gripping and compelling. There is a scene that feels like an episode right out of Twilight Zone where a small town decides not to believe the country is engaged in a civil war and live their lives accordingly.

Garland traces the story arc for each of the quartet and the conclusion to Lee and Jessie’s arcs are superbly drawn. The foreshadow is cleverly done in the first act, but yet when the ending drops it still hits like a thunderclap. Jessie at this point has learned the true art of capturing a photo moment without empathy. “We take the picture and we let the public draw the conclusion”, I paraphrased.

Technically, the movie is stupendous. Bullets are loud and explosion are louder. The war spectacles are a feast for the senses. I saw this on IMAX and it is worth every cent. The scenes of carnage and mayhem are shot with such assured confidence that you will feel what it is like to be on the frontlines.

When it ended with a B&W freeze frame of a bunch of trigger happy soldiers standing over their prized trophy of a bullet-ridden “enemy”, I turned to Choo and said: “this is the first great film of the year.” But I also know at the back of my mind this is going to be a very divisive film. I know what the complaints will be: that it is a hollow film without a strong message about war and it has an utter lack of context for the civil war to begin with. Yes, all these could be made clear but by not shining light on these issues, Garland has crafted something quite visionary and I appreciate filmmakers who has the audacity to do something different.

“What is so civil about war?” Axl Rose of Guns N Roses once said before he explodes into the song with his raspy voice. He is right, there is nothing civil about it.

4 / 5