Civil War (2024) poster

Civil War (2024)


USA. 2024.


Director/Screenplay – Alex Garland, Producers – Gregory Goodman, Andrew MacDonald & Allon Reich, Photography – Rob Hardy, Music – Geoff Barrow & Ben Salisbury, Visual Effects Supervisor – David Simpson, Visual Effects – Framestore, Special Effects Supervisor – J. D. Schwalm, Production Design – Caty Maxey. Production Company – DNA Films.


Kirsten Dunst (Lee Smith), Cailee Spaeny (Jessie Cullen), Wagner Moura (Joel), Stephen McKinley Henderson (Sammy), Nelson Lee (Tony), Evan Lai (Bohai), [uncredited] Jesse Plemons (Militia Soldier), Nick Offerman (President), Sonoya Mizuno (Anya), Karl Glusman (Spotter), Jin Ha (Sniper), Greg Hill (Pete), Edmund Donovan (Eddie), Melissa Saint-Armand (Shop Assistant)


The USA is in the midst of civil war with the Western Forces, California and Texas, who have seceded from the rest of the nation, and are advancing on Washington D.C. to bring down the dictatorial president. War photographer Lee Smith and her journalist companion Joel decide to set out driving to Washington D.C. to interview the president, despite being warned of the dangers. Hitching a ride with them are aging reporter Sammy and Jessie Cullen, an ambitious young novice war photographer who is in admiration of Lee. They make it through various pockets of fighting amid a country where lawlessness and anarchy have run riot.

Alex Garland is a name I have championed as a major genre contributor in recent years. Garland first emerged as a novelist in the 1990s, having a best-seller with The Beach (1996), which he adapted to the screen as the Danny Boyle film The Beach (2000). Garland and Boyle subsequently collaborated on 28 Days Later (2002), the film that started the zombie revival of the 2000s. This led Garland on a new path as a screenwriter and he turned out scripts for another Danny Boyle collaboration Sunshine (2007) and other works like Never Let Me Go (2010) and Dredd (2012). He made his directorial debut with the outstanding artificial intelligence film Ex Machina (2015). This was followed by the adaptation of Annihilation (2018), the extraordinary tv mini-series Devs (2020) and the folk horror/gender politics film Men (2022).

Civil War grasps at the enormous political divides that have rent the USA in recent years – between so-called Middle America and Trump-support conservatism on one side and so-called coastal liberals and woke politics on the other. They are divides that seem to be becoming increasingly wider with either sides ratcheting up rhetoric about the other in ways that rarely seems to be listening to anything anybody is saying, all abetted in no small part by social media and its algorithm that rewards that which creates the most outrage. There are times it feels, looking in from the outside, that there are almost two United States, each one divided into two political countries at war with the other. Indeed, the idea of Texas seceding from the rest of the country is one that has been posited seriously in the last few years by some politicians.

Civil War tackles that divide at the same time as conducting the clever balancing act of remaining apolitical and above it. There is a dictatorial president who has suspended civil liberties and remained on for a third term, although details about what he has done remain vague. The secessionist states are a combined California and Texas, which in real life are two states that could not be more apart politically and leaves you going “okayyy” at the idea of seeing them on the same side. Aside from that, Civil War leaves the political scenario vague. It does remain a Near Future scenario, although it should be pointed out that the only SF elements in the film are the political scenario itself.

Kirsten Dunst as the war photographer Lee in Civil War (2024)
Kirsten Dunst as Kirsten Dunst as the war photographer Lee
Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura and Cailee Spaeny in the halls of the White House Civil War (2024)
(l to r) Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura and Cailee Spaeny in the halls of the White House

The film is essentially a Road Movie through an America that is in the throes of a state of Social Collapse. Part of the shock effect the film holds is seeing the familiar iconography of the American landscape in ruin and chaos – drive-in carwashes with looters hanging from the bays being tortured; the skeleton of a downed helicopter sitting in the abandoned parking lot of a J.C. Penney’s; a Christmas playground where snipers hide in between the fallen rides; open warfare through the streets of Washington D.C., including the blowing up of the Lincoln Memorial and a firefight in the halls of the White House.

The standard take on Civil War by other critics is that it is “a depiction of the USA in a state of collapse”. I would counter this and say this is not primarily what the film is about – it is more “a depiction of war reporters in the heat of battle, one that just happens to take place against the backdrop of the USA in a state of collapse.” On this front, Alex Garland does some fantastic things. From the opening scenes with Kirsten Dunst sheltering Cailee Spaeny behind a SUV as a suicide bomber detonates in a crowd, it is a film that throws you in the midst and give you a grittily real feel for being there. You get the impression that Garland has spoken with and studied the way that real war photographers and reporters work. The casual detail as we watch them moving through firezones, coordinating with the soldiers, the often incredibly risky moves taken, or the relaxed camaraderie in the midst of scenes that should otherwise be horrific comes with a ring of an authenticity. Not to mention Garland pays tribute to Lee Miller, one of the pioneering women war photographers, who is perhaps most famous for taking a photo of herself in Hitler’s bathtub.

The film also contains some great performances. The film often serves as a reunion of Garland’s cast from Devs, including Cailee Spaeny and Stephen McKinley Henderson, as well as smaller roles from Nick Offerman as the President, Sonoya Mizuno as a British journalist and Karl Glusman and Jin Ha as the snipers. Kirsten Dunst’s hard-bitten and cynical central figure is such a performance that it almost makes you forget entirely that Dunst made a career out of playing generic blonde Girl Next Door types. The film centres around a quarter of finely tuned characterisation – Dunst as the seasoned and world-weary photographer; Wagner Moura as the similarly world-weary but more easygoing of the two; Stephen McKinley Henderson as the aging reporter, issuing constant warnings of the dangers; and the young and highly promising Cailee Spaeny as the eager newbie among the group, learning as she goes – and the four of them carry the film on their shoulders. One could hardly go without mentioning the uncredited Jesse Plemons (Kirsten Dunst’s husband in real life) as a militia member they encounter along the way where Plemons’ performance is frightening in its casualness.

Trailer here

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