Producers: Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich and Gregory Goodman   Director: Alex Garland   Screenplay: Alex Garland   Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, Cailee Spaeny, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Sonoya Mizuno, Nick Offerman, Jesse Plemons, Nelson Lee, Evin Lai and Jefferson White   Distributor: A24

Grade: C+

The incredible carnage that could engulf the United States if the country actually experienced a modern-day civil war is depicted pretty effectively by director Andrew Garfield and his technical team—production designer Caty Maxey, cinematographer Rob Hardy and editor Jake Roberts—in their brutally violent cautionary tale about the most extreme form political polarization can take.  Yes, the impact depends in large measure on sudden jump scares of the sort so common to horror movies—a category into which “Civil War” could be placed without much exaggeration—but, abetted by a hammering score from Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, it’s certainly a potent brew, from an opening riot in the streets of New York to a closing assault on a heavily barricaded White House, with a series of smaller but shocking confrontations scattered periodically between the two. 

And yet ultimately the film is disappointing for two fundamental reasons.  One is that the conflict is presented in a virtual vacuum; details about the political causes are practically non-existent, and the few that are provided strain credulity.  It’s stated, for example, that the President (Nick Offerman) is in his third term, but how the constitutional limitation was sidestepped is never explained, and his televised statement at the start doesn’t go beyond patriotic bromides (empty, as it turns out, since his military backing is crumbling).  Moreover the makeup of the rebel Western Force, as it’s called, is designed to sound absurd, being an alliance of Texas and California.  Nor is it explained how the rebels are so well armed, with jets and helicopters in abundance (as well as an apparently expert command structure), though ragtag gunmen are also part of the resistance.

Of course it can be countered that to give the war greater specificity would turn the film into a political tract espousing a liberal or conservative point of view.  But unmoored from any recognizable reality, the battles come to seem more akin to video game than drama.

As it is, moreover, the strongman persona of the president gives him a Trumpian aura (at one point he’s compared to the likes of Mussolini and Ceausescu), and the character of those who appear to be his supporters in the countryside is not appealing: some scruffy gunmen, including a proud redneck (Jefferson White), torturing a couple of victims at a gas station, for instance, are the very opposite.  That sequence, though, merely has a horror movie ugliness; the film’s one genuinely unsettling scene comes when Jesse Plemons shows up as a soldier leading a squad disposing of bloodied bodies in a ditch—and willing to add others he nonchalantly dismisses as “not real Americans” to the pile of corpses.

Those whom he threatens are the quartet of reporters who are the surrogates through whom viewers traverse the continental battleground as they travel from New York to Washington: Lee (Kirsten Dunst), a famous war photojournalist; Joel (Wagner Moura), her excitable colleague and driver; Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), her elderly mentor who cadges a ride with them to Charlottesville, near the front lines; and Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), a young photographer who idolizes Lee and persuades Joel to let her tag along.  Most survive the encounter with the murderous soldiers, though two friends of Joel’s (Nelson Lee and Evin Lai), who have the misfortune of being Asian, do not.

And here we encounter the second major problem in “Civil War.”  Simply put, these four major characters have little depth, and their banter is banal.  We meant to see that Lee goes through an emotional crisis as the journey progresses—she’s obviously agonizing over the forced necessity of educating the callow, reckless Jessie in their dangerous work (which leads to an act of self-sacrifice)—but Dunst never manages to make us understand what Lee is going through, except in the most superficial way; and as for Jessie, in Spaeny’s flat rendering her transformation from innocent to expert is never convincing.  Henderson’s grizzled world-weariness is fine, but Moura’s extremes—from frat-boy exuberance over getting to the action to sputtering rage toward the close—have no overall grounding.  Plemons’ icy reserve, however, is chilling, an authentic heart of darkness.

If Garland had managed to capture more of that spirit in “Civil War,” the film could have achieved the profundity it’s clearly straining for.  As it is, it can be admired for its desire to warn us about the potential cost of the escalating tensions that threaten to fracture U.S. society but, in the end, it comes across as viscerally intense but intellectually timid and dramatically thin.