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Civil War movie review & film summary (2024)

Before we go any further, let’s have a sidebar about this scenario. The first full-length trailer for “Civil War” got picked apart as if it were the movie itself rather than an advertisement for it (a weird regular occurrence in “film discourse,” such as it is). But the actual movie turns out to be more politically astute and plausible than early reactions said, even though it’s likely that Garland’s “you already know the story” approach (like the way the overall arc of the US occupation of Vietnam was depicted in “Full Metal Jacket) will seem to validate the gripes for the first hour. Yes, it’s true, Texas votes Republican in national elections and California votes Democratic, but as of this writing, Northern California is increasingly controlled by libertarian-influenced tech billionaires, and much of central and eastern California leans Republican and loathes California Democrats so much that they’ve advocated “divid(ing) parts of coastal California, including the Bay Area, from California to become an independent country.” 

Which is another way of saying that everything presented in this film could happen, based on what we know about divisions within the United States circa 2024—but also that, if you had to make a list of what “Civil War” is trying to do, “diagnosing what ails the United States of America” might not even crack the Top 5. Yes, if you wanted to treat the movie so reductively, you could. But if you pay attention to what the movie is actually doing rather than cherry picking elements that validate whatever take you brought in with you, it won’t be easy. I went into “Civil War” with arms folded, expecting to hate it, because so many contemporary films about US politics by foreign filmmakers seem to have cribbed their worldview from New York Times editorials and bad Tweets. It upended all of my preconceived notions.

As far as “future shock” goes, Garland, an Englishman, isn’t cynically avoiding specifics or talking out of his behind. He’s burying the text under subtext, in the name of creating a compelling but credible experience, until said text explodes through the screen via Jesse Plemons, who has a cameo as a soldier who might or might not be a Western Front officer but definitely sympathizes with them. This soft-voice, smirky hellion interrogates the terrified group of journalists (which consists of two white women, a native-born Black man, and a South American emigre, plus an Asian-American and a Chinese immigrant who’ join them on the road) with all the delicacy of Gene Hackman’s racist white cop Popeye Doyle terrorizing Black people in “The French Connection” for kicks.

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