Civil War (2024) Review


Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.

When you get right down to it, politics is war without the carnage, and war is arguably (and unfortunately) the first thing humanity figured out how to do. Therefore, it’s practically impossible for war films to be apolitical. There’s always a point of view, social value or perspective layered into the on-screen conflict. This is true of realistic war films such as Saving Private Ryan (1998), and even fanciful war films such as Star Wars (1977). The best war films are actually anti-war films, but they also have to dig a little deeper and say something more. This begs the question, does Alex Garland’s Civil War (2024) suffer for taking an extremely apolitical stance, as well as delivering a simplistic message?

Kirsten Dunst as Lee.

Set in the immediate future, the United States of America is in the middle of a second civil war. Instead of a clear division between the northern and southern states like it was in 1860s, the conflict is between the seceded Western Forces (Texas and California), and the Government forces controlled in Washington. With the war having raged for a while, the entire country is feeling the effects and has become a hostile combat zone. In the midst of all this chaos, renowned photojournalist Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst) is starting to feel fatigued and desensitised to the violence. With Western Forces closing in on Capitol Hill, Lee and her colleagues Joel (Wagner Moura) and Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) decide to make their way to the White House and interview the President (Nick Offerman) before it’s too late. Along for the ride is amateur photographer Jesse (Cailee Spaeny), who is experiencing the horror of war correspondence for the first time.

Director Alex Garland delivers many high concepts, but he also manages to craft them with a surprising level of realism. In the case of Civil War, that realism comes from the frighteningly believable depiction of modern warfare. While there have been plenty of films which can make that same claim, Civil War takes a slightly different approach from the likes of Jarhead (2005), The Hurt Locker (2009), or Lone Survivor (2013), an approach which is at once less gratuitous and more confronting. ‘Realism’ with most films is visually depicted with heavy shadows, gritty film grain, and desaturated colours. However, real life doesn’t always have dark shadows, grimy edges and colourless tones, even in the middle of a war zone. In reality, a bloody and upsetting shootout can happen on a sunny day, with clear blue skies. Thus, Garland and cinematographer Rob Hardy have figured out how to display that kind of juxtaposition, finding a near perfect balance between artistic melodrama and mundane normalcy. As a result, the moments of violence are particularly unnerving, without ever needing to indulge in blood and guts.

Cailee Spaeny as Jesse.

If the intention was to create a sense of unease by transplanting newsworthy war imagery into a 1st world, modern setting, then mission certainly accomplished. As such, this kind of story requires a lot of internal world-building to make it believable. As the story unfolds, the viewer has certain questions, such as how did the war break out, what are the two sides fighting for, how do each side’s military and infrastructure work, and what does it mean for either side if they win or lose? Interestingly, Civil War never gives clear answers to any of these questions. There are hints and clues to all of them, but it’s left relatively vague. This may irritate some viewers wanting to fully unpack why things are happening, but the ambiguity doesn’t derail the main story. In a way, it makes for a very active viewing experience, as the audience is able to create their own overall meaning. 

This is ultimately how Civil War manages to survive its very basic “war is hell” message. Garland has layered the visuals, scenes, and character exchanges with countless allusions to real life conflicts, so it feels like Civil War should take some kind of political stance, yet it never really does. Right now, this makes it seem like the film is too scared to present an opinion, but it may actually work in its favour for future viewers. In years to come, audiences won’t necessarily be thinking about (or even aware of) the political context in which the film was released, which means Civil War’s generalised, apolitical, and blanket viewpoint on conflict will be easily understood no matter when it’s watched. Garland is playing the long game, intentionally crafting the story to be a universal examination of warfare, instead of a direct allegory.

Wagner Moura as Joel.

Fortunately, this choice does make the story itself more interesting and tense, as the characters are left just in the dark about what’s going on as we are. Each time they meet a new contingent of soldiers, we never find out whether they are rebel soldiers or army forces, meaning we can’t be sure whether our heroes are safe or in danger. In a way, it’s as if the story is an example of the fog of war, which only clears once the battle is over. Additionally, this allows the characters to represent different kinds of journalistic objectivity, and how that objectivity emotionally changes them. That being said, this does occasionally create a drawback, as some of the characters behave in a manner which doesn’t make sense under the circumstances. In these moments, it feels as though they are just doing what is required of them to get to the next story beat, but it’s hard to believe they would actually take these actions. It’s not the biggest issue, considering that the successive scenes are some of the film’s high points.

As an added bonus, the cast does wonderful work with this fascinating story. Kirsten Dunst is a revelation as Lee, giving possibly her best ever performance and thus emerging as the highlight of the film. Cailee Spaeny is a young, up-and-coming performer who has consistently done great work, and that’s no different here. Spaeny does fine work as the audience’s point of view character, displaying many of the emotions we would have in these high stress situations. Wagner Moura is dependable as Joel, despite his slightly over-the-top character feeling out of place at times. The standout turns is Jesse Plemons, who (in just one scene) reminds us that no one portrays relaxed evil as chillingly as he does. 

Jin Ha as Sniper.

Civil War may be imperfect, but it’s a fascinating, entertaining, memorable and creative work. It’s possible that time won’t mend its flaws, but many great, and classic films aren’t necessarily flawless. In the long run, it’s more important to be rewatchable. With that in mind, Civil War does have the potential to develop a cult following, as its rewatch value is beyond reproach. 


Best way to watch it: Not around election time. May end up being a contentious topic.

Civil War Poster.

Robert Fantozzi

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