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Dystopian film 'Civil War' follows journalists covering a second American civil war

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The film "Civil War," which depicts modern America as a literal battlefield, embeds viewers with journalists who are covering an assault on Washington. Critic Bob Mondello says it's a nightmarish alternate reality designed to trigger pretty much everyone.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: It is roughly today - but not quite. Welcome to the divided states of America.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CIVIL WAR")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Nineteen states have seceded.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) The United States Army ramps up activity.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) The White House issued warnings to the Western Forces, as well as the Florida Alliance.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) The three-term president assures the uprising will be dealt with swiftly.

MONDELLO: We meet that third-term president - and yes, he will remind you of someone - as he's trying out phrases like greatest victory in the history of mankind for a TV address about the state of a no-longer-existent union.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CIVIL WAR")

NICK OFFERMAN: (As President) Citizens of America, the so-called Western Forces of Texas and California have suffered a very great defeat at the hands of the United States military.

MONDELLO: Before you have time to puzzle out that California-Texas alliance - and don't sweat it, because the politics here are kept purposely vague - the action shifts to a desperate mob of New Yorkers screaming for water, screams that are silenced by a figure wearing an explosive vest...

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION BOOMING)

MONDELLO: ...Which is when we meet the scrum of journalists we'll be embedding with for the duration. Seasoned war photographer Lee, played by Kirsten Dunst, is the one calling the shots, as it were.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CIVIL WAR")

KIRSTEN DUNST: (As Lee) Every time I survived a warzone, I thought I was sending a warning home - don't do this. But here we are.

MONDELLO: She's teamed up with a cross-cultural journalistic bunch, a Latino reporter for Reuters, a Black New York Times correspondent and a young woman photographer Lee rescues...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CIVIL WAR")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) It's my choice.

DUNST: (As Lee) Right.

MONDELLO: ...And then feels saddled with.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CIVIL WAR")

DUNST: (As Lee) And I'll remember that when you get blown up or shot.

MONDELLO: Together, they'll travel to Washington, 200 miles from Manhattan on a map but an 800-mile road trip on the byways they use to avoid active warzones, byways jammed with abandoned cars where football stadiums have become refugee centers and a huge winter wonderland Santa blocks a sniper's view of two soldiers.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CIVIL WAR")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) What's going on?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As character) Someone's trying to kill us. We are trying to kill them.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) You don't know what side they're fighting for.

MONDELLO: Writer-director Alex Garland makes that a recurring question, with soldiers on both sides wearing camouflage, and one, played by Jesse Plemons, seemingly unimpressed by press credentials.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CIVIL WAR")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As character) We're American.

JESSE PLEMMONS: (As character) OK. OK. What kind of American are you?

MONDELLO: The journalists are - remember - Black, Latino and women.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CIVIL WAR")

PLEMMONS: (As character) You don't know?

MONDELLO: As I said, the divided states of America. Without ever taking or even defining sides, the filmmaker jacks up the stakes by relocating war images audiences associate with foreign conflicts to Main Street, USA - a downed helicopter, say, in a JCPenney parking lot or prisoners trussed up for execution behind a suburban gas station. When atrocity is so common, it no longer shocks the journalists covering it. What is their role exactly?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CIVIL WAR")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #8: (As character) Like, why didn't I just tell him not to shoot them?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) They were probably going to kill them anyway.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #8: (As character) How do you know?

DUNST: (As Lee) He doesn't know, but that's besides the point. Once you start asking yourself those questions, you can't stop. So we don't ask. We record so other people ask. You want to be a journalist? That's the job.

MONDELLO: These are the central characters in a story about the role of the free press, but heroes? Well, as their road trip, places them at the center of a blistering siege of Washington, opinions will vary on that.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNS FIRING)

MONDELLO: It says something that "Civil War" qualifies as the darkest dystopia yet from a filmmaker who killed off the entire city of London in "28 Days Later" and who called another of his movies "Annihilation."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CIVIL WAR")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #9: (As character) Move. Move. Move.

MONDELLO: Whether you experience the film as a battlefield blockbuster, a provocative cautionary tale or a straight-up horror story, it will almost certainly strike you as urgent and pulse pounding. And there's no arguing the harrowing cinematic force of the film's final moments, a pitched battle in which the director nods to America's other civil war by blowing up the Lincoln Memorial...

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION BOOMING)

MONDELLO: ...Then heads to the White House to blow up what's left of the American experiment. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.