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The Oldest College Newspaper in Pennsylvania

The Lafayette

The Oldest College Newspaper in Pennsylvania

The Lafayette

Cinema with Sam: ‘Civil War’ a nail-biting masterpiece

“Civil War” follows a team of political and military journalists in dystopian America. (Photo courtesy of IMDb)

Last weekend I had the opportunity to experience A24’s latest cinematic experience, “Civil War” (2024), in the immersive IMAX format. This unique film, written and directed by the talented Alex Garland, takes us on a gripping journey with war photographer Lee Smith, portrayed by Kirsten Dunst.

As Lee navigates a war-torn America, her mission to interview the president, played by the versatile Nick Offerman, becomes a race against time before the rebelling forces of California and Texas seize control of the capital. The movie also features stellar performances by Wagner Moura, Cailee Spaeny and Stephen McKinley Henderson, who portray Lee’s fellow war journalists who are also making the perilous trip. The film is horrifying, brutal, tense and causes your adrenaline to spike, all while being poetic, beautiful and thought-provoking at the same time.

Known previously for his sci-fi films “Ex Machina” (2015) and “Annihilation” (2018), Alex Garland gives us his most exhilarating and epic movie to date. While stating recently that he is stepping away from filmmaking, Garland continues to prove he is one of the more original and impressive directors working today. With “Civil War,” Garland has crafted the anti-war film of this decade.

Rather than taking a side in the conflict, Garland has his main characters stay neutral as required by their job. This has angered many moviegoers, but I think it is smart. It allows Garland to appeal to 100 percent of Americans, not just 50 percent from one side of the aisle. The film explores how humanity reverts to barbaric tendencies in times of crisis and how we all become desensitized to violence. It also shows the importance of journalism, especially photography, during these times of crisis. Dunst’s Smith rightfully fears that humanity hasn’t learned anything from the countless horrific war photos from the past.

The performances in “Civil War” across the board are fantastic. Headlined by Dunst, who many know as Mary Jane from Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” trilogy, and Wagner Moura, who became famous after portraying drug lord Pablo Escobar in Netflix’s “Narcos” (2015), are triumphant in their respective roles. Dunst expertly portrays the hardened exterior possessed by Smith after countless years of war photography and exposure to violence but occasionally reveals the soft interior during the film’s quieter moments. Moura brings charm and wit to Joel not found anywhere else in the film, and for the majority of the runtime, like Lee, has a hardened exterior. But when Joel finally breaks down, it is heartbreaking.

This slow reveal is aided by Cailee Spaeny’s Jessie, a compassionate, bright-eyed photographer looking to be the next big shot, who is taken under Lee’s wing. Finally, McKinley Henderson, known for roles in “Dune” (2021) and “Lady Bird” (2017), plays aging journalist Sammy and is great, as always. Jesse Plemons, while having a limited role, also deserves a shoutout.

On a technical level, “Civil War” stands shoulder-to-shoulder with other recent large-scale war films, and it is genuinely shocking that it is an A24 film, a studio known for smaller, independent movies. Rob Hardy’s cinematography is breathtaking and does not hold back from showing the ugliness of violence. The sound design by Glenn Freemantle, Ben Barker and Mary H. Ellis is loud and, at times, overwhelming, but is incredibly immersive, especially when seen in IMAX. Pair the sound with Hardy’s excellent cinematography and the viewer is transported right into the heat of the battle. The final 20-minute action sequence is heart-pounding and feels like it was pulled straight from “Saving Private Ryan” (1998).

While indeed controversial with its subject material and stance, or lack thereof, on the conflict, Alex Garland’s “Civil War” is a nail-biting modern cinematic masterpiece that is as poignant as it is utterly mesmerizing.

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About the Contributor
Sam Cohen
Sam Cohen, Movie Columnist
Sam Cohen (he/him/his) is a junior majoring in Film and Media Studies. He won the Special Grand Jury Prize for his Comedy short film “The Gum Run” at the 2019 Montclair Film Festival Emerging Filmmakers Competition. Sam writes weekly reviews of recent TV Shows and Movies while occasionally reviewing older, forgotten classics. When not reviewing, discussing, or watching films, Sam is also a part of many extracurriculars on campus, including being a co-captain of the Ultimate Frisbee team, a member of the Chi Phi Fraternity, and an officer of the Film Society.

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