Alex Garland's Controversial Drama 'Civil War' Imagines a War-Torn America | Movie+TV Reviews | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

On Screen » Movie+TV Reviews

Alex Garland's Controversial Drama 'Civil War' Imagines a War-Torn America


Published April 17, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.

Kirsten Dunst plays a photojournalist in a U.S. war zone in Alex Garland's controversial cautionary tale. - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Kirsten Dunst plays a photojournalist in a U.S. war zone in Alex Garland's controversial cautionary tale.

For those of us who love A24, Civil War is a milestone: It earned the quirky indie distributor its highest opening weekend box office to date. Granted, built-in controversy surely drew many viewers to this dystopian drama from English writer-director Alex Garland (Men, Annihilation, Ex Machina), which depicts a U.S. civil war in the present day.

The deal

We join said war already well in progress. It all appears to have started when the unnamed U.S. president (Nick Offerman) decided he wanted a third term.

The secessionist "Western Forces" are preparing to march on Washington, D.C., and depose the would-be dictator. Two Reuters reporters, writer Joel (Wagner Moura) and photographer Lee (Kirsten Dunst), hope to get there first and interview the president. Veteran correspondent Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) tags along, though he warns them the loyalists aren't friendly to journalists.

Joining their road trip through the combat zone is a very green photojournalist, Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), who talked her way onto the expedition and craves mentorship from the hardened Lee. The trek will open her eyes and test her resolve to get the story.

Will you like it?

Civil War has caused much recent rumbling on social media, with critics charging that the movie is a bait-and-switch. When A24 released a map of the factions in the film's alternate history, many revolted. Where are the politics? they demanded. Where is the expected red-versus-blue state conflict? Did the non-American filmmaker play it safe by taking ideology out of the equation? In a world in which Texas and California are on the same side, how do we even know whom to root for?

So be warned: If you crave a film about progressives fighting the forces of MAGA — or the reverse — this isn't it. But as a white-knuckle cautionary film about the horrors of a modern civil war on American soil, Civil War succeeds brilliantly at immersing us in the chaos.

Lean on exposition, the screenplay is vague about how long ago the conflict started, but we can hazard a guess based on the characters' state of fatigue bordering on apathy. They no longer debate the issues or contemplate a return to normalcy. Yet we see evidence of past atrocities everywhere: Discarded vehicles litter the interstates, as in a zombie movie. People congregate in refugee camps. Cell service doesn't exist. When the journalists enter a small town where shops are open for business, they express shock, as if pockets of even apparent peace are few and far between.

Let's be honest: No matter how Garland framed the civil war, we would never have stopped arguing about whether his scenario was plausible. Our own problems and predictions would have dominated our attention. By deliberately withholding the specifics, he forces us to narrow our focus to the things that actually matter to the characters: the adrenaline rush of danger and the logistics of survival.

Dunst gives a masterfully tight-wound performance as Lee, who is a spiritual sister to Jeremy Renner's soldier character in The Hurt Locker. A photographer of combat since college, she thrives in circumstances that would break other people, but the lifestyle is taking its toll. Lee doesn't want to mold Jessie into her likeness, yet the alternative is to leave the younger woman defenseless. So she educates her, instructing her not to think too hard about the horrors she shoots with her camera: "We record so other people ask the questions."

To Lee, the essence of journalism is a hard-won objectivity that serves posterity even as it dehumanizes the witnesses, stripping them of human sympathies. That ideal eventually rebounds on her as the plot reaches a denouement that is as gripping as it is inevitable.

Despite its naturalistic style, Civil War doesn't disdain war movie clichés. We can see fairly early on where the character arcs of reckless rookie Jessie and paternal veteran Sammy are headed. The movie doesn't give viewers the satisfaction of seeing their real-life political enemies destroyed, either. The trappings of dystopia aside, it's simply another modern war story, with the same dread and absurdism that we saw in early films about the Iraq War (remember those?).

But it all takes place on American soil, and that's a political statement in itself. As Jamelle Bouie of the Times wrote in his newsletter, "The point ... is to shake Americans of the delusion that we could go to war with each other in a way that would not end in catastrophic disaster." Or, as he put it more succinctly on TikTok, "Be careful what you wish for." Civil War is a cautionary tale about how violence, justified or not, takes on a self-perpetuating life of its own. It's a reminder we may need.

If you like this, try...

The Purge: Election Year (2016; Netflix, rentable): If you crave a movie about modern American civil war that does take a clear side, you could do worse than this pulpy action series in which working folks battle a regime that has legalized the ritual murder of the powerless.

"Generation Kill" (seven episodes, 2008; Max): Civil War reminded me of this miniseries based on Rolling Stone correspondent Evan Wright's book about the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It evokes the boredom and brutality of modern warfare with subtle critique and dark humor.

The Hurt Locker (2008; MovieSphere, PLEX, rentable): Like Lee and Joel, the protagonist of Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar-winning film about a bomb disposal squad in Iraq is dangerously hooked on the adrenaline of constant peril.

Speaking of...



Comments are closed.

From 2014-2020, Seven Days allowed readers to comment on all stories posted on our website. While we've appreciated the suggestions and insights, right now Seven Days is prioritizing our core mission — producing high-quality, responsible local journalism — over moderating online debates between readers.

To criticize, correct or praise our reporting, please send us a letter to the editor or send us a tip. We’ll check it out and report the results.

Online comments may return when we have better tech tools for managing them. Thanks for reading.