Civil War, Alex Garland

Alex Garland’s ‘Civil War’ Refuses Righteousness

Alex Garland’s Civil War refuses righteousness. Instead, it takes a hard, unflinching look at the true costs of war for everybody and everything it touches.

Civil War
Alex Garland
12 April 2024 (US) (UK)

In the last third of Alex Garland‘s harrowing, truly upsetting film Civil War, there is a moment when Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst) is lying face-down in the grass, taking cover from enemy fire. The camera lingers on a foregrounded purple flower, sharply in focus, while the surroundings fade into a soft-focus blur.

The shot simultaneously achieves two purposes, drawing out subtle themes and subtexts that could potentially reveal more about what the film is trying to achieve. For one, it shows how Smith has been in the line of fire so often over the course of her career as a war photographer that she can catch some rest while waiting for snipers to be smoked out. The camera’s gaze hints at another potential reason for the scene, which feels almost peaceful and beautiful. War isn’t about killing. It’s not about victory, honor, glory, or other loaded buzzwords intent on recruiting young people to throw away their lives in conflict. In Civil War, war is about the living, about protecting what matters in life. 

Civil War‘s plot is straightforward. Smith and her colleague Joel, another seasoned photojournalist (Wagner Moura), plan to leave New York City to get to Washington D.C., where the President of the United States has installed himself for a third term after abolishing the F.B.I. While in New York, Smith and Joel run into Smith’s mentor (Stephen McKinley Henderson as Sammy), who convinces the pair to give him a ride as far as Charlottesville. They also meet Jessie Cullens (Cailee Spaeny), a plucky and idealistic aspiring photojournalist who looks up to Smith.

Most of Civil War is a road trip movie set in a devastated, war-torn landscape. Needless to say, the journey is grim and evokes an unfortunately far-too-possible near-future. Civil War stands somewhere between John Hillcoat’s The Road (2009), Frank Darabont’s The Walking Dead (2010-2022), and François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959). Each scene is more grueling than the last under Garland’s forensic dissection of humanity’s propensity for cruelty, selfishness, and myopia. Long before the film’s end, you’re left as dead-eyed as Smith, wrung out and unable to process fresh traumas.

With the characters of Joel and Smith, we see two motivations for engaging in society’s endless conflicts. Smith is the objective observer, trying to bring the unbiased, ungarnished image to speak for itself. Joel, on the other hand, is an adrenaline junkie thrill-seeker, throwing himself into the meat grinder of battle and bloodshed in search of that elusive rush. You can see examples of both of these personality types in the comments section of virtually any news story or social media post. It’s not difficult to imagine legions of “Smiths”, traumatized and numb. There are probably plenty of “Joels”, too, coming down from an adrenaline high, screaming profanities at the heavens.

Civil War is already one of 2024’s most divisive films. Critics and audiences are taking Garland to task for “both sides”-ing. This alone speaks to the necessity of the film. For one, it’s not neutral. While the journalists might not be sporting blue vests, only one side seems to be ordering air strikes on American civilians and digging mass graves. Secondly, the primary characters in Civil War are not supposed to take sides – they’re journalists. Its polarized reception sheds some interesting light on the film and the current state of the American psyche. Much of Civil War‘s official coverage has been negative. It also had the biggest opening weekend in A24’s history. Clearly, people want to have this conversation. However, What should be said is still a matter of dispute.

Civil War is at its best when it focuses on the living, on the everyday moments, even in the face of such unimaginable horrors: the family’s living free and easy in a Western Forces refugee camp; Jessie taking the time to try on and buy a used dress from a second-hand store and play a game “Pony Express” (swapping vehicles in motion) with another team of photojournalists; Joel having a smoke in the dirt before attempting to grab some shut-eye, the environment nearly serene beneath the soft glow of distant incendiary rounds.

Civil War also makes the horror hit that much harder. Not 15 minutes after Cullen’s daring vehicle swap in that aforementioned game, her new companions are dead. They are executed by an unnamed character with the outfit and attitude of a nationalist white supremacist (Jesse Plemons) in one of the film’s most chilling scenes. Still alive, Cullen will be dumped into a mass grave, forced to clamber her way over a heap of anonymous corpses.

However, it’s never stated which side Plemons’ character is on. He’s not in uniform, nor can the bodies in the mass grave be easily identified. This frustrates many of Civil War‘s detractors. But does it matter that we can’t identify the character’s stance in this war? We see through his words and actions that he’s a homicidal racist. Does it matter which side is using his psychopathy to their advantage?

Civil War is currently happening in at least 25 countries. However far away they may be from the viewer’s location while watching Alex Garland’s film, all the makings for a civil war reside within our fellow humankind everywhere. Civil War warns us of what is lost when the bullets begin to fly at merciless speed, and the bombs fall like burning rain.

RATING 8 / 10