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What ‘Civil War’ tells me

A good movie can unite people.

When I first saw the trailer for Brazilian writer-director Alex Garland’s new blockbuster “Civil War,” I thought, “What fresh hell is this?” I vowed to skip it altogether.

Needless to say, I thought twice. Living on an island also limits my celluloid choices, so I watched the nightmarish movie everyone is talking about in the main theater at the Nantucket Dreamland. Thank God the Dreamland does not have an IMAX theater, either; “Civil War” would have given me a heart attack in surround sound, high resolution, and stadium seating.

The first thing I noticed in “Civil War” were all the sad eyes—understandable, given its apocalyptic view of America at war with itself. At the same time, the ensemble cast channeled such constricted affect, my eyes felt moist, too.

Led by Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, and Stephen McKinley Henderson, this trio of battle-tested war correspondents is soon joined by Cailee Spaeny. When the film opens, Jessie (Spaeny) has instantly developed a professional crush on Lee (Dunst), who has just saved them both from a suicide bombing.

Image courtesy of A24.

Lee is a veteran war photographer, while Jessie is clearly an amateur. The latter asks to tag along with Lee as she heads to Washington, D.C. with Joel (Moura) and Sammy (Henderson), who hope to interview the president before the Western Forces arrive. The Western Forces represent a coalition of states waging war against the U.S. government and its president, played by Nick Offerman.

In many ways, “Civil War” is a road trip, albeit one that detours into western Pennsylvania to avoid all the carnage between New York and D.C. One of my favorite scenes takes place along this alternate route near a railroad track.

Viewers see smoke and hear explosions in the distance, not unlike the muted death camps in “The Zone of Interest.” But Lee, Joel, Sammy, and Jessie have stopped for the night beside these tracks, next to some abandoned freight cars. Emblazoned on one of the steel boxcars? Two words: “Building America.” The visual irony is great.

From here, the road trip only gets more complicated. In a chilling scene featuring Dunst’s real-life husband Jesse Plemons, his psychopathic killer will leave you in shock and awe. After all, the very same actor played a good guy in last year’s “Killers of the Flower Moon.” Here he plays a nameless part in an uncredited role that is truly terrifying.

As well, Cailee Spaeny’s starring role in “Civil War” is 180 degrees from her breakout performance in last year’s “Priscilla.” In Garland’s imagination, she and Dunst symbolize the press, shooting the shooters with their Nikon cameras.

In many ways, Garland’s movie is as much or more about the press as it is about civil war. This becomes crystal clear when our quartet of fearless reporters enters the White House press room. “26 Days in Mariupol” this certainly is not, though it obviously hits home for American moviegoers.

Indeed, the movie lands at a super tense time across the country. Then again, I am not sure it would resonate the same way had it been released sooner or later.

Regardless of good timing, what “Civil War” tells me is that the American public likes an action thriller. Of course, the movie also continues to lead the box office just as the immediate past president’s criminal trial in Manhattan begins. Perhaps this split-screen reality heightens our sense of cold war, civil war, even proxy war.

And yet, writer-director Alex Garland knows just how hard it is to transition from a military regime to a democracy. This is precisely what happened in his native Brazil in 1985.

With any luck, the United States will remain a full-fledged democracy always and forever. In the meantime, check out “Civil War,” which is thought provoking in a disturbing way. It is playing now at The Moviehouse in Millerton as well as at The Triplex Cinema.

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