'Civil War' is one of hardest movies to watch, and the most important you'll see this year

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It’s misleading to call “Civil War,” Alex Garland’s latest film, political, because despite all appearances there are no politics to speak of.

Which maybe in itself is political. But there’s no bothsideism here. There are no sides at all, at least not in that way. What there is, in propulsive, unrelenting intensity, is war — and the violence and the horror and the destruction it demands. This is the aftermath of politics gone wrong, of deepening divisions and hunger for unchecked power — and the journalists documenting it all, and the price they pay to do so.

It’s one of the best movies of the year. And among journalists, at least, it should be one of the most-talked about.

What is 'Civil War' about? Probably not what you think

The film opens with the President of the United States (Nick Offerman, outstanding, as ever), hair helmet firmly in place, rehearsing as he is about to address the nation. “Some are already calling it the greatest victory in the history of mankind,” he says. Sound familiar? The images we see put a lie to what he’s saying: This “victory” is the U.S. military turned on American citizens. Texas and California — strange political bedfellows, which is doubtless the point — have seceded, forming the Western Alliance. Florida has formed its own breakaway nation.

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The president is in his third term. He has disbanded the FBI. He hasn’t given an interview in more than a year. If this sounds like Trumpian wish fulfillment, fair enough, but that’s it for the political backdrop. We don’t learn more about how or when the nation split apart. We only know how it’s playing out.

And it isn’t pretty.

The film tracks four journalists who are chronicling events. The informal leader is Lee Miller (Kirsten Dunst, as good as she’s ever been), a legendary war photographer. She and reporter Joel (Wagner Moura) work for Reuters. They’re covering what turns into a bombing in New York when Lee helps out Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), a would-be photographer who thinks of Lee as a hero. Later that night, at a hotel bar, Lee and Joel chat with Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), an aging reporter for “what’s left of the New York Times.” He’s a mentor of sorts to Lee.

They’re going to attempt to drive to Washington D.C. the next day; Joel and Lee have a line on the elusive interview with the president. Much to Lee’s chagrin, Jessie tags along. What follows is a road trip through the worst nightmare of what the country could become.

Jesse Plemons is terrifying in a small role

At least let’s hope it’s the worst. A run-in with a rogue soldier played with menace as quiet as it is chilling by Jesse Plemons is horrifying. At a gas station a gun-toting lunatic talks about how one of the men he’s got strung up out back didn’t much talk to him when he was in high school. It is the petty grievances that have become so popular taken to their logical conclusion. And it is terrifying.

To Lee, it’s a matter of getting everything on the record. Should they intervene in violent situations? Should they stand against something they know is wrong? “We don’t ask those questions,” Lee tells Jessie, who has done just that. “We record, so other people can ask those questions. If you want to be a journalist, that’s the job.”

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But is it? How far do you carry that belief? Lee gives you a pretty good idea after she warns Jessie she’s afraid she’ll lose her mind or get shot.

“Would you photograph that moment — if I got shot?” Jessie asks?

“What do you think?” is Lee’s simple reply. What matters most to her is the story, and she will go to almost any lengths to get it. It is a dedication that goes increasingly unappreciated — the dedication to telling the truth, no matter how ugly that truth is.

Alex Garland's direction is flawless

Garland, who also wrote the script, shoots incredibly intense battle scenes. I saw the film in an IMAX theater and recommend it. The sound enveloped the audience, percussive, disturbing. Between the galloping pace of the action and the percussive soundtrack and sound editing, you remain tense the entire time. Garland just won’t let you relax.

But there are subtler touches, as well, and Garland’s direction is flawless. As they drive through Pennsylvania we see the words “Go Steelers” painted on a bridge. It takes a moment to notice the bodies hanging from it.

Eventually, they arrive at their destination. But they are changed. What they have seen and are about to see is unimaginable. Or it should be. What happens when your job is to bear witness to the destruction of everything you have known or believed in?

“Civil War” offers some answers, none of them easy. Let’s hope these are questions we never really have to ask.

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'Civil War' 5 stars

Great ★★★★★ Good ★★★★

Fair ★★★ Bad ★★ Bomb ★

Director: Alex Garland.

Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Nick Offerman, Cailee Spaeny.

Rating: R for strong violent content, bloody/disturbing images, and language throughout.

How to watch: In theaters Friday, April 12.

Reach Goodykoontz at bill.goodykoontz@arizonarepublic.com. Facebook: facebook.com/GoodyOnFilm. X: @goodyk. Subscribe to the weekly movies newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: 'Civil War' review: road trip through worst of what we could become