In the opening frames of Civil War, writer-director Alex Garland brilliantly offers the audience an interesting proposition, which dually asks, are we, the audience, paying attention to our surroundings, immediately followed with a cut from black to a dictatorial president (Nick Offerman) preparing to give an update to the people of the United States. Or, at least, what’s left of it as a multiparty civil war engulfs the nation.

The second part of that duality, you’ll have to discover for yourself as an experienced photojournalist, Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst) aims to get an exclusive interview with the President before the Fourth of July and before the rival factions advance onto the capital.

Garland directs Dunst with assured composure, as Lee and her small team ascend from New York City toward Washington, D. C. Joining Smith are Joel (Wagner Moura), a colleague from Florida with good instincts (most of the time), and Sammy (Stephen McKinley-Henderson), their mentor, and a seasoned journalist with The New York Times. Cailee Spaeny plays Jessie, an aspiring photographer.

With such a small main cast, Garland wants us to focus on them as individuals and the experience they each bring to Civil War. The director leans into similar stories coming out of Vietnam, where war correspondents delivered a visual expose of the happenings, while Americans protested or supported the effort, and other than the named factions, Garland is non-committal to political affiliation in the story, and as are the characters. Smith’s journey follows a similar path to that of Captain Willard’s in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now peppered with how the conflict affects other regions along their path, notably Jesse Plemons’ dangerously steady moment. The visual tension spills out of the screen with a classic horror film level of carnage and violence.

If the countryside between New York City and Washington, D.C. weren’t torn to shreds, the quad would be able to traverse the I-95 corridor. Instead, Garland detours them west and then southeast. By doing this, we get to observe how four distinct lives of those who have seen war and destruction and the toll it has already taken and takes on those who not only put themselves in harm’s way to get a story but also those whom they come into contact with.

High marks for Dunst’s, Moura’s, and especially McKinley-Henderson’s performances in a story filled with intrinsic irony, either through names, places, or situations. Dunst’s take on how PTSD quietly affects Lee is an aspect that draws your attention, enhanced through Rob Hardy’s Oscar-deserved, exquisite cinematography. His depth of field, not only when she experiences her moments, but also in the moments when we can catch our collective breaths, should be experienced on an IMAX or Dolby Cinema screen. Those moments never feel forced, either through the story or the editing.

The bold Joel tends to his own PTSD – influenced moments, mixed with colorful anecdotes and keen observations, while the wise Sammy exudes caution, warning the party that you never know what’s around the corner. Spaeny’s Jessie is a neutral observer and a go-getter, but she knows not what she’s getting into. With wide eyes opened, she leans into each situation in a coming-of-age character arc just as brilliantly as her peers. Garland’s more muted dialogue, as delivered by the cast and in context, pairs exceptionally well with the dynamism of the visuals, requiring the audience to use almost all of their senses to appreciate the story’s ironies.

Garland’s bag of tricks is on full display, the same as we’ve seen in his scripts for 28 Days Later and Sunshine, and his direction of Annihilation and Ex Machina. His love of a dystopic future coupled with a focus on the people it truly impacts, is to be respected, drawing parallels to the times we live in. In the “here and now” thoughts drift toward “what about me,” not in a selfish way, but in a self-preservation way.

That Garland chose to use a team of journalists to remind us of the importance of traditional journalism, and that there are individuals who aspire to carry on with a free press in the tradition of journalistic integrity speaks volumes. How loudly it speaks to those truths will only be influenced by our own opinions, both of the film’s merits and our overlay of current events on the film.

Civil War is, from that perspective, a very timely and necessary story.