Civil War (United Kingdom/United States, 2024)

April 12, 2024
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Civil War Poster

Sometimes it’s the little things that impede the full success of an ambitious film. That’s the case with Alex Garland’s Civil War – an alternate-history dystopian road trip movie that does its best not to answer the many questions viewers will have about a threadbare backstory. When focusing on the micro-verse inside a news van and the four passengers taking the trip, Civil War does a good job dissecting the damage done by a desensitization to violence. But it botches the background and features an ending that belongs in another movie (preferably one featuring Gerard Butler).

Beyond the basics – the United States is in the midst of its second Civil War, various states have seceded and formed splinter alliances, the President (now in his third term) has become a dictator, and the loyalist states are losing the war – Civil War is frustratingly short on details. Although a case could be made that a major exposition drop might have been problematic, there are elegant ways this could have been done. The lack of even a middling attempt indicates that Garland simply doesn’t care about these things. His goal is to present a character-based allegory about the hell of war…at least until the narrative goes off the rails with a climax that defeats even the best attempts to suspend disbelief.

While the publicity material for Civil War postulates that the events in the film transpire in “the near future,” clues within the production contradict this. Considering the across-the-board level of technology (everything from automobiles to smart phones to Internet connectivity), the time frame is contemporary, meaning this is an alternate-history story (since preceding events must stretch years, if not decades, into the past).

The four main characters are well-defined types – journalists expecting and enjoying protection from all sides in the conflict so they can provide a front-line perspective of events. There’s Lee (Kirsten Dunst), a veteran photographer whose deep resume includes iconic pictures taken from other wars and whose extreme PTSD has turned her into an emotionless shell. Joel (Wagner Moura) is Lee’s writing partner, an adrenaline junkie who gets off on the thrill of battle, while not yet having confronted its true horrors. Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), an aging New York Times reporter, is war-weary but committed. Finally, there’s Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), a young photographer who idolizes Lee and seeks to learn from the older woman. Lee and Joel have a single goal – they want to make the trip from New York City to Washington D.C. (which requires a significant detour to the west since I-95 appears to be closed) – in time to interview and photograph the President before he is captured and executed. Sammy calls the trip a “suicide” mission and believes there’s no way they can achieve their aims. Jessie is along for the ride.

A significant portion of Civil War focuses on the primary characters, showing their interactions and exploring their views about the war and their purpose as journalists. At times, the movie is reminiscent of Michael Winterbottom’s Welcome to Sarajevo, a “compelling examination of the role the media played in reporting and shaping the average person's views of… war.” The trajectory is that of a road picture, with the news van traveling from Point A to Point B and having various encounters along the way. One of these, a disturbing run-in with a group of soldiers (whose leader is played by Jesse Plemons), is a standout. Plemons is so good in this role that, despite having minimal screen time, he steals the entire movie.

Garland’s objective is to amp up the claustrophobia – an achievement in which he and his cinematographer, Rob Hardy, find success. Throughout his career as a writer and director, Garland has never dealt in upbeat stories so it’s no surprise that Civil War starts in the twilight and gets darker as it proceeds. Even casual encounters are fraught with tension and uncertainty. Perhaps one of the reasons Garland doesn’t bother with a complete and credible backstory is because (to the characters if not the audience), it doesn’t matter. Once one has entered hell, does it matter how one got there? As events unfold, each of the characters experiences major personality changes. By the end, no one is the same as at the beginning.

Performances are key in making the characters real. Kirsten Dunst is especially good as a woman who has buried herself so deeply in an emotionless cocoon that, when there are cracks, they make demands on Dunst as an actress. Stephen McKinley Henderson is the voice of reason who realizes this may be his last rodeo but is determined to see it through. Cailee Spaeny, who recently played the title character in Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla, faces the most difficult arc as the horrors around her shred the remaining vestiges of her naivete and force her to understand what she must sacrifice to become who she wants to be.

Alas, the ending cheapens the overall experience. Especially without a better understanding of how things got to that point and who The President (Nick Offerman) is, the cheesy action and silly narrative contortions of the final 15 minutes are a difficult pill to swallow. Garland fumbled the ending of his previous film, Men, and that same problem is evident here. He knows how to tell a story but can’t stick the ending. This flaw diminishes Civil War but it isn’t a fatal blow. There’s still enough captivating and disquieting material here to make the experience worthwhile. And this isn’t an easy movie to shake off.

Civil War (United Kingdom/United States, 2024)

Run Time: 1:49
U.S. Release Date: 2024-04-12
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Genre: Drama/Thriller
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1