“Civil War” Is A Thriller That Hits Close To Home


Given the movie’s title, marketing and the current political climate, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Alex Garland’s “Civil War” is a movie about the growing divide between Americans and the potential fallout of a crucial election year. Truth be told, it’s barely about America at all, and even then, it has nothing to do with who’s in the right and what it means to be a good citizen.

There’s no commentary on right or left, and any allusions to the main players of the real world are relegated to a passing, inconsequential resemblance. Had it been set in any other country, it could have been the same movie with few alterations.

“Civil War” is a movie about the ethics of journalism, and your response to that statement will likely determine your opinion of the whole movie. If the idea of a slow, introspective look at what it means to document a war through the same lens one would a nature documentary appeals to you, this may be a favorite of the year. If you were expecting what the marketing seemed to promise — namely a guns-blazing, high-octane action movie about the downfall of the United States — then you’re going to be left wanting more.

That’s not to say there isn’t any action at all – the final act offers 10-15 minutes of a bloodthirsty siege that rivals the likes of Tom Clancy, and the rest of the movie is spotted with the occasional burst of unspeakable violence, but it’s never the focus. Even when embroiled in flames and gun smoke, the movie never lets up from its modus operandi of showing just how far someone is willing to go for that perfect photograph.

The main theme here is the idea that to be an effective journalist in times of trouble, you have to completely disconnect from what’s happening around you. An early scene shows Lee, a veteran photographer played by Kirsten Dunst, walking among a sea of corpses that had, not 10 seconds earlier, been full of life. She doesn’t mourn nor cry; she simply crouches beside them to grab the perfect shot of the slaughter. Does that total mental divorce make her a bad person? Is the act of observing without getting involved a moral one? That’s what we’re here to explore.

Lee and her team’s decision to separate herself from events results in them treating it like a game, refusing to share plans with rivals and competing for the best angles. There’s this impression that none of the journalists at the core of this story see the war as what it truly is: a slaughter. It’s the main drawback of setting this movie during a fictional war – the idea that they’re denying reality is only supported by how ridiculous the setting is.

Had this movie been set in the Middle East, or had it been a period piece during Vietnam, the moments of clarity where the protagonists realize what’s actually happening around them would have been a much stronger scene. The upside to the American setting is that it might, with a bit of luck, hammer home just how devastating wars can be when painted across a familiar canvas. Seeing mass graves and summary executions conducted across the American Northeast reveals just a fraction of what occurs elsewhere during times of political and military unease.

The real drawback of the movie has nothing to do with the filmmaking at all. The screenplay, camerawork and particularly the acting are all stellar throughout, and after the dust settles, it will likely be regarded as a solid capstone to Alex Garland’s directing career. What fails is how it was marketed. Realistically, “failed” might be too strong a word, considering how the film will likely become one of studio A24’s highest-grossing releases of all time, but it can’t be overstated just how misrepresented “Civil War” has been by its trailers, posters, title and press tour.

Despite being an excellent writer and generally impressive director, Garland has done this movie no favors by pushing the worldbuilding and background logic of the film to the forefront. The idea of California and Texas teaming up to conquer or liberate the rest of the United States is a ridiculous notion, but it works as a narrative device to keep the politics of each opposing side ambiguous, to allow focus on the story at hand. By trying to explain the reasoning and promoting the film as a story about the whole country at the close of the American empire, the actual story feels more like a misdirect, like we’re not being shown everything we were promised.

If “Civil War” had met the expectations of its trailers, and if it had Nick Offerman’s nameless, party-less president as a main character instead of a background figure with no stake in the story, would it have been a better movie? Maybe, but it wouldn’t have been this movie, which is, by and large, a solid thriller that’s more than worth the price of entry. Every cast member gives a career-defining performance, including Jesse Plemons, whose single scene is perhaps the most haunting of the whole picture. It’s the kind of movie that’ll likely reveal countless more details on subsequent viewings, and while the final scene may seem abrupt, the journey that leads to that final showdown in Washington makes it all worthwhile.


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