Civil War - Photo A24
Civil War – Photo A24

Deliberately pushing all your ‘fear’ buttons, Alex Garland’s “Civil War” is obviously intended to be a cautionary tale, but it falls short in many ways. 

The dystopian story begins sometime in the near / immediate future in war-torn New York City, where water is rationed and residents battle the police. 

Several military-embedded journalists are preparing to undertake the precarious drive to Washington, D.C., hoping to interview the divisive President, who has disbanded the FBI and ordered airstrikes on civilians. 

What was once the United States has been divided by regional factionalism. Hostility abounds between federal government-backed Loyalist forces under an authoritarian third-term President (Nick Offerman) and secessionists known as The Western Front, comprising California and Texas.

There’s also a Florida Alliance as well as a New People’s Army holding territory in the Northwest.  Each of these groups demands fidelity and no one trusts anyone else’s intentions.

Much to the annoyance of veteran Reuters photojournalist Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst), she – along with her colleague Joel (Wagner Moura) and New York Times reporter Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) – will be joined in their press van by a young, free-lance documentarian, Jessie Cullen (Callee Spaeny), who admires and wants to emulate Lee. (The foreshadowing is abundantly obvious.)

Their tense, episodic, 800-mile road trip will take them through ‘enemy’ encampments, military checkpoints and improvised refugee camps. The most horrifying scene finds the journalists being held hostage by a ruthless, relentless soldier (Jesse Plemons) who demands to know: “What kind of American are you?”

British writer/director Alex Garland (“Ex Machina”), whose father was a political cartoonist, and cinematographer Rob Hardy opt for abrasive ambiguity, chronicling the senseless, bloody brutality yet never taking a partisan stance. 

Instead of embracing any specific ideology, they’ve seemingly used their film as a speculative catalyst for conversation, presenting unbiased reporters as heroes, determined to hold polarization in check.

While it’s reassuring that a free, independent press still exists in Garland’s grim future, what’s missing are revelatory backstories for traumatized Lee and terrified Jessie that would have ignited more emotional resonance. 

FYI: “Civil War” opened in theaters on April 12, 2024. The real American Civil War began exactly 163 years before that. 

On the Granger Gauge of 1 to 10, “Civil War” is a fraught, frenzied, fragmented 5, playing in theaters.

Apples Never Fall - Photo Peacock
Apples Never Fall – Photo Peacock

Based on a bestseller by Australian author Liana Moriarty (“Big Little Lies”), “Apples Never Fall” is a seven-episode limited series that’s ready to binge.

The family drama begins with the sudden disappearance of recently retired Joy Delaney (Annette Bening), who spent decades running a prestigious tennis academy in West Palm Beach with her husband Stan (Sam Neill), a highly competitive former player who became a respected coach, having launched the career of Grand Slam winner Harry Haddad (Giles Matthey). 

Stunned that their mother inexplicably vanished are their four adult children. Once a top-tier contender, Troy (Jake Lacy) has channeled his competitive energy into venture capital. Acerbic Brooke (Essie Randles) has opened a physical therapy clinic and is engaged to Gina (Paul Andrea Placido). 

Arty, alarmist, aimless Amy (Alison Brie) is an emotional mess, bunking with a younger, empathetic landlord (Nate Mann). And marine manager Logan (Connor Merrigan-Turner) finds it’s easier to break up with his fiancée than move from his houseboat and cut close family ties.

Then Joy’s blood-splattered bicycle is found on the roadside. Complicating matters is short-tempered Stan’s history of emotional neglect, making him a prime suspect. Another suspect is Savannah (Georgia Flood), an enigmatic grifter who popped up on the Delany’s doorstep one night, begging for shelter from an abusive boy-friend; she then deliberately proceeds to ingratiate herself with Joy.

Following her Oscar-nominated performance in “Nyad,” Annette Bening is warm and compelling as an aging ‘helicopter mom’ coping with an ‘empty nest,’ while Sam Neill adds depth to a volatile performance.

Showrunner Melanie Marnich–with directors Chris Sweeney and Dawn Shadforth–interweave ‘Now’ and ‘Then’ chronological episodes, geared to presenting each family member’s perspective, keeping the ‘whodunit’ tension taut, throwing in structured snippets of mistrust, deception and infidelity.

On the Granger Gauge, “Apples Never Fall Far” is a seductively suspenseful 7 – with all episodes streaming on Peacock TV.

Westport resident Susan Granger grew up in Hollywood, studied journalism with Pierre Salinger at Mills College, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with highest honors in journalism. In addition to writing for newspapers and magazines, she has been on radio/television as an anchorwoman and movie/drama critic for many years. See all her reviews at www.susangranger.com.