Civil War stuns in the least likely ways imaginable

In an era of divisive, high-stakes U.S. politics, it isn’t surprising to see so many people online responding to the entire concept of Alex Garland’s Civil War as if it’s inherently toxic. Set on and around the front lines of a near-future America broken into separatist factions, Garland’s latest (after the fairly baffling fable-esque Men) looks like a timely but opportunistic provocation, a movie that can’t help but feel either exploitative or far too close to home in a country whose name, the United States, sounds more ironic and laughable with every passing year.

And yet that doesn’t seem to be Garland’s goal with Civil War at all. The movie is about as apolitical as a story set during a modern American civil war can be. It’s a character piece with a lot more to say about the state of modern journalism and the people behind it than about the state of the nation.

It’s almost perverse how little Civil War reveals about the sides of the central conflict, or the causes or crises that led to war. (Viewers who show up expecting an action movie that confirms their own political biases and demonizes their opponents are going to leave especially confused about what they just watched.) This isn’t a story about the causes or strategies of American civil war: It’s a personal story about the hows and whys of war journalism — and how the field changes for someone covering a war in their homeland instead of on foreign turf.

Lee Miller (Kirsten Dunst) is a veteran war photographer, a celebrated, awarded, and deeply jaded woman who’s made a career out of pretending to be bulletproof in arenas where the bullets are flying — or at least being bulletproof long enough to capture memorable, telling images of what bullets do to other people’s bodies and psyches. Her latest assignment: She and her longtime work partner Joel (Wagner Moura) have been promised an interview with the president (Nick Offerman), who is now in his third term in office and coming off more than a year of public silence.

It’s a dream opportunity for a war correspondent — a chance to make history, and maybe more importantly, to make sense of the man whose choices seem to have been key in pushing the country over the line and into war. But securing the interview will require traveling more than 800 miles to Washington DC, through active war zones, and past hostile barricades erected by state militias or other heavily armed local forces. And tagging along on this potentially lethal road trip is Jessie (Priscilla star Cailee Spaeny), a green but ambitious 23-year-old photographer who Lee obviously thinks is likely to get herself killed along the way — or get the whole traveling party killed.

The tension between Lee and Jessie — potential mentor and her potential replacement, the past and future of their chosen career, allies but competitors chasing the same things within a small profession known equally for its rivalries and its interpublication commiseration — forms the center of Civil War, far more than the tension between any particular political perspectives does. For all that the movie is coming in a time when pundits keep warning about the potential for an actual new American civil war, Garland’s Civil War barely tips its hand about the specifics of the conflicts.

There’s plenty there for viewers who want to read between the lines, about which states are in revolt (California, Texas, and Florida all get passing mentions as separatist states) and about the soldiers — mostly Southern and many rural — who get significant screen time. But Lee’s angry exhaustion and Jessie’s fear and excitement over learning more about the profession from someone she respects are the real heart of the story.

All of which makes Civil War a movie more about why war correspondents are drawn to the profession than about any particular perspective on present American politics. And it’s a terrific, immersive meditation on war journalism. Lee and her colleagues are presented as half thrill-seeker adrenaline monkeys, half dutiful documentarians determined to bring back a record of events that other people aren’t recording. They’re doing important work, the movie suggests, but they have to be more than a little reckless both to choose the profession and to return to the battlefield over and over.

Lee never gives any big speeches about the difference between covering war in Afghanistan and in Charlottesville, but it’s clear she’s fraying under the pressure of watching her own country in such a rattled and ragged state, with hardened soldiers on both sides demonizing other Americans the way Americans have demonized entire foreign nations. Jessie, for her part, seems impervious to the weight of that reality, but still far less inured to cruelty and to combat. The two women push powerfully at each other, with a clear, beautifully drawn, yet unspoken sense that when Lee looks at Jessie, she sees her own younger, dumber, softer self, and when Jessie looks at Lee, she sees her own future as a famous, capable, confident journalist.

All of this character work is built into a series of intense, immersive action sequences, as Lee’s group repeatedly risks death, trying to negotiate their way across battle lines or embed themselves with soldiers during pitched combat. The finale sequence, a run-and-gun combat through city streets and tight building interiors, is a gripping thrill ride that Garland directs with the immediacy of a war documentary.

The entire film is paced and planned with that dynamic involved. It’s a particularly gorgeous drama, shot with a loving warmth that reflects its point of view, through the eyes of two photographers used to conceiving of everything around them in terms of vivid, compelling images. A late-film sequence shot as the group drives through a forest fire is especially beautiful, but the movie in general seems designed to impress viewers on a visual level. By mid-film, it becomes clear that Lee shoots with a digital camera, while Jessie shoots on old-school film, and that for both of them, that choice is important and symbolic.

In the same way, Garland’s shot choices and the movie’s vivid color keep reminding the audience that this is a movie about not just documenting moments, but capturing them well enough to mesmerize an audience. In some ways, Civil War comes across as a bit nostalgic for an earlier era of journalism and photography. The collapse of the internet seems to have reset the news to a point where print journalism dominates over TV or social media, and no one seems to be getting their news online. It’s the most prominent retro aspect of a story that’s otherwise reflecting a potential future.

What the movie isn’t about is taking sides in any particular present political conflict. That may surprise and disappoint the people drawn to Civil War because they think they know what it’s about. But it’s also a relief. It’s hard for message movies about present politics to not turn into clumsy polemics. It’s hard for any document of history to accurately document it as it’s happening. That’s the job of journalists like Jessie and Lee — people willing to risk their lives to bring back reports from places most people wouldn’t dare go.

And while it does feel opportunistic to frame their story specifically within a new American civil war — whether a given viewer sees that narrative choice as timely and edgy or cynical attention-grabbing — the setting still feels far less important than the vivid, emotional, richly complicated drama around two people, a veteran and a newbie, each pursuing the same dangerous job in their own unique way. Civil War seems like the kind of movie people will mostly talk about for all the wrong reasons, and without seeing it first. It isn’t what those people will think it is. It’s something better, more timely, and more thrilling — a thoroughly engaging war drama that’s more about people than about politics.

Civil War opens in theaters on April 12.