Film Review – Civil War

Civil War

Civil War

The title of Civil War (2024) is a little misleading. The film does take place during a fictional scenario in which a section of U.S. states broke off and entered armed conflict with the rest of the country. But to say that this is about war, or the nuances of American politics, is not entirely accurate. Writer/director Alex Garland takes a large canvas to cover more personal and intimate themes. He uses warfare as a framework, opting to examine how the images of death and destruction mold our perspectives. He follows the storytellers and journalists – those that enter the crossfire to document the history of these large-scale events. 

There has been much debate over “fake news” or “misinformation” in recent years. With the rise of the internet and social media comes an avalanche of lies and rumors, and thus a growing distrust of the government. But while news outlets are under constant scrutiny, the need for accurate reporting is greater than ever. It was the video and photographic reporting during The Vietnam War that changed the public’s view of it, and about America’s involvement in combat altogether. Journalists, photographers, and cameramen head out on the field, hoping to capture the mayhem so people can see what is happening far away from the safety of their homes. Civil War asks us what happens with the reporting when the battle ends up on our front doorstep.


How does one step onto the battlefield with only a Kevlar vest saying the words “Press” on it as their only protection? That is what lies at the heart of Garland’s narrative. We follow journalists, from different backgrounds and experience, as they head their way from New York to Washington D.C., where rebelling forces march towards the White House to overthrow a dictatorial president (Nick Offerman). Lee (Kirsten Dunst) and Joel (Wagner Moura) are seasoned field reporters, hoping to snag an interview with the president. The job has taken a toll on Lee, imbuing her with trauma that resembles PTSD. Tagging along are the young and ambitious Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), and aging Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) a fellow reporter and mentor to Lee.

The meat of the plot has our protagonists on a road trip heading towards the nation’s capital. Garland’s direction – combined with stellar production design and Rob Hardy’s cinematography – structure the journey as a series of vignettes. There are the usual apocalyptic visuals that we have seen before: countless abandoned cars on the freeway, crumbled buildings, downed helicopters, scattered fires, explosions of light in the far distance, etc. But what makes this middle portion so interesting is how Garland uses it to showcase a cross section of society in response to war. Some arm up and barricade themselves in isolation, such as when the group encounters a lone sniper trying to pick them off. Other times, the response goes in the other direction, like when they travel through an idyllic neighborhood. The community goes on with their lives unaffected by what is happening just a few miles away, as though it were not their problem.

The toll of these episodes hangs over the group, particularly between Lee and Jessie. The emotionality rests on the relationship between them. Lee sees the gusto Jessie exhibits and hesitates to bring her along because of the severity she will see. The screen presence of both Kirsten Dunst and Cailee Spaeny is so strong that they work in contrast to the writing. There are instances where both make bad decisions that put them in hot water. Dunst and Spaeny make their characters smart enough to know better. One scene – involving a reckless driving incident – shows both Lee and Jessie doing things that just don’t seem plausible given their characters’ make up. Lee is too experienced and Jessie is too self-aware to let something so dumb happen to them. It’s the worst scene in the film. I won’t get into details, but I’m sure you’ll know what I am talking about when you see it.


The action is grounded, realistic, and in your face. The shootouts, tank bombardments, and overall chaos are tangible and visceral. All the while, Lee and Jessie snap their photos at every opportunity. The editing continuously shows us their pictures as they are taken in real time. When Lee and Jessie take a picture, the action will freeze into a black and white still frame, resembling real life historical photographs. Some might accuse Garland of focusing too much on the misery and loss of life. One of the most intense scenes has the group running into a squad of heavily armed extremists, headed by Jesse Plemons’ terrifying leader. The film puts extra effort into detailing how sociopathic they are. We meet them as they dump a truck full of dead bodies into a mass grave. Is the imagery over the top? I can understand how some might think so. Garland and company toe the line with how much despair they show, although I don’t think they completely cross it. 

Anyone coming into this hoping for a statement on current American politics will walk away disappointed, regardless of which side of the aisle they belong. The writing makes direct effort to sit right in the middle of opposing philosophies. This is exemplified when we discover which states have joined forces to secede: California and Texas. The two couldn’t be more diametrically opposed politically – at least from a majority standpoint. To pit the two together is a curious decision by Garland. What is being said with this decision? What is Garland (who is English) saying about America through this story? Is he saying anything, or is he having us simply bear witness to the “What If” of it all? 

Civil War works best as a character study – about the drive journalists must have to go places everybody else wants to escape. When the narrative pulls back to a macro level, covering the social and political circumstances of this story, things get hazy. This is an immediate, tense, and well-made movie. It operates at its highest in the moment, pulling our reactions quickly and aggressively. But when we walk away and think about it, its shortcomings reveal themselves. I was impressed by what I saw onscreen, but I’m not so sure it leaves a lasting impact.




Allen is a moviegoer based out of Seattle, Washington. His hobbies include dancing, playing the guitar, and, of course, watching movies.

You can reach Allen via email or Twitter

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