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‘Civil War’ Review: Alex Garland’s Provocative Dystopian Nightmare

Garland’s newest film depicts a dystopian America at war with itself. Is it reckless or necessary?

Kirsten Dunst in Civil War. (Credit: A24)

Alex Garland’s latest film has debuted in theaters at either the best or the worst possible time imaginable depending on who you ask. Civil War is his fourth directorial work and third collaboration with beloved indie studio A24.

The film follows a group of photojournalists traveling across a dystopian, civil war-torn United States. Their goal is to land an interview with the President as the war draws to a close.

Is Garland’s new film a dangerous piece of sensationalist fiction? Or is it a cautionary tale on the widespread devastation of a divided nation?

Let’s review Civil War!

Story background

Nick Offerman in Civil War.
Nick Offerman in Civil War. Credit: A24

Civil War is set in an unspecified future not too far from our own. It depicts an American nation that is all but united. The country is divided into five factions: The Western Forces, The Loyalist States, The Florida Alliance, The Republic of California, and The Second Republic of Texas.

As the President (Nick Offerman), now in his third term, prepares to address the fractured nation in the introductory scenes, we see past his calm demeanor. As he assures the country that the rebels have nearly been snuffed out, we see the fear in his eyes. He know he’s on the losing side of this fight, and the war is quickly approaching its end.

What’s the plot?

Helicopters fly above a Western Forces camp in Civil War.
Helicopters fly above a Western Forces camp in Civil War. Credit: A24

Watching the President’s broadcast in a dingy hotel room rattled by the faint rumble of distant warfare is Lee (Kirsten Dunst). She’s a renowned photojournalist, hardened by her years of capturing shots on the front lines of some of modern history’s most horrific events. She finds herself caught off guard during a protest the next day when plucky aspiring photojournalist Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) approaches her and tells her how much she admires her work.

Word begins to spread of the impending end of the war and a Western Forces victory is looking likely. Lee and her crew plan to drive nearly 600 miles to Washington D.C. to score an interview with the President before the conflict ends. Upon hearing of the risky plan, Jessie manages to score herself a ride with their team.

Despite Lee’s protests, Jessie accompanies her and fellow journalists Joel (Wagner Moura) and Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) on a journey through the decaying heart of America. Now a wasteland of violence and revolution, the journey will prove to be the most dangerous mission of their lives.

Is it any good?

Wagner Moura in Civil War.
Wagner Moura in Civil War. Credit: A24

Civil War may take the cake as the most dour road trip movie ever made. But it is an incredibly well constructed one. It operates as a series of scene vignettes across the barren landscapes of an apocalyptic America. We see the vast impact of the conflict from various angles.

From horrific battleground set pieces, to overstuffed refugee camps filled with displaced civilians, misery is everywhere. Garland will often intercut these horrific visuals with oddly upbeat music. The juxtaposition is strange, but it is a unique creative choice. Perhaps a commentary on American society’s hyperfixation and trivialization of violence?

Despite some lighter moments, the film is incredibly tense. You’ll find yourself clutching the leather of your theater recliner at numerous points throughout. Most notably, the sequence featured in the trailer with Jesse Plemons playing a soldier questioning our leads on “what kind of Americans” they are.

As the final act commences and the conflict gets taken to the lawns of the White House, it becomes a nonstop thrill ride until the credits roll. Don’t forget to breathe during these sequences.

What makes the movie so effective?

Abandoned cars scatter a desolate road in Civil War.
Abandoned cars scatter a desolate road in Civil War. Credit: A24

Perhaps most important in selling this dystopia is the worldbuilding, which Garland clearly understands. Graffiti splattered walls giving vague clues. Subtle references to fictional events, such as The Antifa Massacre, are sprinkled throughout the dialogue. Little details like these provide necessary tidbits that sell the reality of this scenario. At one point we see a group of citizens on bikes riding down an empty street. While never explained, it can be deduced that all gas has likely been allocated to the militias and that civilians have had to resort to bikes as the primary source of transportation for their daily commutes.

Garland’s frightening vision is brought to the screen in visceral fashion, and it is without a doubt his most daring film to date. It’s chock full of heart-pounding tension, earth-shattering sound design, and plenty of tender character moments. It provides little in terms of context or political depth, but I think that’s the point.

Necessary or dangerous?

A press truck drives through a burning forest in Civil War.
A press truck drives through a burning forest in Civil War. Credit: A24

Ever since the first trailer for this hit the internet, questions of Civil War’s potential recklessness have run rampant. Being released in such a politically divided time for America only months before one of the most important elections it has ever faced is certainly a bold release strategy. That said, the way in which Alex Garland helmed such delicate subject matter is commendable and purposefully vague. He is smart enough to poke the bear without waking it up.

The film is not interested in the political reasonings for the conflict, nor the events that led up to the war. Aside from a few clues that the President has abused his power in ways such as keeping himself in office past his two terms and abolishing the FBI, there is little context provided. Civil War sets aside the complicated “why” and “how” of the equation to instead fully explore the outcome of such a scenario.

Texas and California?

A map showcasing the factions in Civil War.
A map showcasing the factions in Civil War. Credit: A24

Audiences quickly voiced their confusion over the Texas/California alliance when the trailer dropped. Reality tells us that a union of these two states with completely separate ideals is more far fetched than any of the dystopian elements that the film features. Yet this was completely by design. Not wanting people to bring real world politics into their viewing, Garland creates a reality that is different enough from our own, yet still similar enough to scare us.

By removing ties to modern American politics, we can better absorb the main lessons of the film: war, in any form, is hell. The film is unflinching in its violence, lingers on the desolation of a once strong nation, and never shies away from the catastrophic effects the war has had on the civilians.

Garland doesn’t want you going into this movie to validate your opinions about how one side or another is ruining the country. He wants us to see that regardless of how this all started, the outcome is pure devastation. It is something we need to actively ensure we avoid at all costs.

How are audiences responding?

Despite the film’s notoriety, Civil War has racked up plenty of admirers already.

That said, the film’s refusal to take a political stance has left some a bit sour.

Should I go see Civil War?

Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, and Cailee Spaeny in Civil War.
Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, and Cailee Spaeny in Civil War. Credit: A24

You would be completely forgiven for wanting to skip out on this one given the subject matter. Movies are meant to be escapist activities, not reminders of the political divide we are bombarded with every day.

But for those intrigued, my recommendation for Civil War is an absolute yes. It is an edge-of-your-seat cautionary tale with plenty of bite to it. If this truly is Garland’s final outing as director, as has been loosely reported, then this is one hell of a bang to go out on.

Written By

23 years old, Metro State University graduate with a Technical Communications and Professional Writing BA. Lover of films, writer of words, builder of Legos, walker of beagles. Constantly adding films to my watchlist.

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