(director/writer: Alex Garland; cinematographer: Rob Hardy; editor: Jake Roberts; music: Geoff Barrow, Ben Salisbury; cast: Kirsten Dunst (Lee Smith), Wagner Moura (Joel), Cailee Spaeny (Jessie), Stephen McKinley Henderson (Sammy), Sonoya Mizuno (Anya), Nick Offerman (President), Jessie Plemons (Soldier); Runtime: 108; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Gregory Goodman, Allon Reich, Andrew Macdonald; A24; 2024)

“Questions what would happen to democracy if its safety net doesn’t work.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The risk-taking Brit director Alex Garland (“Men”/”Ex Machina”), in this visually pleasing but controversial futuristic historical film, imagines the United States is in its second civil war and questions if it’s possible the democracy can fail under violence.

We follow a group of journalists in NYC who cover the incident of the police violently attacking civilians. Then it’s onto Washington, D.C. to be in a war zone, where there are armed dissenters, bombed-out cars and a football stadium serving as a place to get medical treatment.

The civil war is not so far-fetched a thought when we see in the real world the power-hungry and bellicose former President Trump stoking the flames for over-throwing the government with his lies, false claims of a stolen election and his unquestioning MAGA backers and the spineless Republican party bowing in obedience to their whiny leader no matter how crazy he becomes.

The focus of the film is on the newspaper reporters documenting the war events, who are for Garland the bastions of objectivity and the ones he pays homage to in this cautionary tale as the possible saviors of the country before things get out of hand.

The earnest documentary-styled film questions what would happen to democracy if its safety net doesn’t work and there’s another civil war.

The reporters embedded with the government troops include the eager-beaver optimistic cub photojournalist Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), the hardened and jaded war photographer Lee (Kirsten Dunst), the happy-go-lucky Latino writer Joel (Wagner Moura) and the wise man veteran from the NY Times Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson). They trek to Washington D.C., where rebel forces are about to attack the WH.

Why the conflict started is not fully explained.

We discover Texas and California are united under a two-star flag and are part of the “Western Forces” who seceded from the Union. These two states are usually political opposites (red state-blue state), but for some inexplicable reason unite to attack the government.

Nick Offerman plays the three-term fascist President, whose rhetoric is belligerent and his actions are despicable. The scoundrel disbands the FBI and orders air attacks on his own citizens.

It is at times an exhausting and frustrating film experience, even if it’s always thought-provoking and sends an anti-war message. Its purpose seems to be to show that the dangers of going too far against the government is to unite the country by telling it that facts matter and that it would be catastrophic to lose a democracy through a violent coup over a divided country that should settle its differences by an election and not a war.

It played at SXSW.

REVIEWED ON 3/30/2024  GRADE: B-