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Civil War

Remember when you were in literature class and the teacher assigned you to read Homer's "The Odyssey"? You went to the bookstore and bought the study guide and read it instead, didn't you? Now, remember that one person who read the whole book and wrote a 10-page report on it that put everyone else to shame? Ya - they grew up to become a movie director. "The Odyssey" is the foundation of some of the world's greatest motion pictures, and I'm not just talking about "O Brother Where Art Thou?". I'm talking about "Platoon", "Saving Private Ryan", and Cormac McCartny's "The Road". Add to that Allex Garland's new apocalyptic drama "Civil War".

People are struggling with what category to place Garland's film into. Is it a war film? A film about war correspondents? A social commentary on American politics? Ultimately, like Homer's "Odyssey" it's not about any one thing. It's about the journey, and the trials we face on the road that transform us and turn us into the person who arrives at the end, for better or for worse. Hopefully your literature teacher tried to explain that to you.

If you saw the trailers for Alex Garland's "Civil War" you might think it's a politically driven war film, and I would be counted among you. I went in preparing to write about the film's political message, only to learn a few minutes in that it's not that kind of film. As it opens, we find America in the final days of a long brutal civil war. Garland doesn't tell us how long it's been going on, but clearly it's been years. The three-term President is deeply embedded in Washington D.C., which has been turned into a defensive fortress. He's under siege from the combined Western Forces (a union of California and Texas), as well as the Florida Alliance. Garland goes out of his way to conceal the politics of the warring factions. I'm sure he chose California and Texas deliberately to avoid making it a Left verses Right conflict (California being one of the most liberal states, while Texas leans conservative). What started the war remains unknown, and neither side is treated as "good guys".

It's only days, perhaps hours, until Washington falls and the president is captured or killed. Into this Garland gives us three war-weary journalists (Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, Stephen McKinley Henderson) who have been covering the war long enough they can read the tea leaves. They know they need to move quickly or miss the "Big Story"- the President's final statements to the press. Like moths to the flame, these professionals have spent their lives risking everything for the next Big Scoop or Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph. What follows is a race against time to reach Washington before it's too late. Tagging along is a 23-year-old amateur photographer (Cailee Spaney showing us she's much better than "Prisilla") who dreams to become the same person Kirsten Dunst has grown weary of being.

Alex Garland ("Ex Machina", "Annelation") is a defiant voice in film today. Many writer/directors feel the need to explain everything, as if the audience will walk out if they don't understand every little detail. They fill their scripts with needless exposition. Characters today are constantly explaining to each other everything they feel, think, or do. That way we don't (heaven forbid) miss something. Garland shuns such insecurities. His characters talk and act like real people. They reference things that are never mentioned again ("you photographed The ANTIFA Massacre"), leaving us to guess their relevance. If they have backstories, we're given little glimpses, but nothing more. That's how life works, and it's refreshing to see a film where people talk and act like real people, even at the expense of plot and backstory. What Garland doesn't avoid is foreshadowing. In exchange for dialog, Garland gives "Civil War" a constant sense of foreboding and dread. Weather we're passing through a seemingly deserted drive-through Christmas display or just watching two characters in the distance talking to a couple of men with guns, in a Garland film you just know when something bad is about to happen. You just know.

I'm not going to say much more. I don't want to spoil it. Just don't go into this film expecting America to end like "War of the Worlds" or "Independence Day". It's not that film. It's a slow burn in a blasted landscape like "The Road". Also, don't expect Garland to turn away from the violence. It's graphic and brutal. There are more on-screen executions than any film I can remember. They are there to emotionally devastate you - and they will. After all, people died in "The Odyssey" - LOTS of people - most of them good. Garland hasn't forgotten that.