Cailee Spaeny and Kirsten Dunst in 'Civil War' (FlixPix/Alamy Stock Photo)

Ours is a boom time for anxiety. Still reeling from a global pandemic, we now face the advent of avian flu. The world is embroiled in brutal wars, AI is steadily usurping all human functions, students and police clash on college campuses, our cities teem with the unhoused, our southern border hosts a never-ending human tragedy. All that, and an unhinged grifter is running for president—again—on an “Elect a Dictator!” platform. Anyone feeling a tad worried about the future?

It would be hard to imagine a writer-director better suited to this jittery and ominous zeitgeist than Alex Garland, an expert in the varieties of dystopian catastrophe. As a screenwriter, Garland made his name with 28 Days Later (2002), a zombie film that tracked chaos in a UK devastated by a virus loosed from an animal-research facility. Sunshine (2007) followed a space crew in the future whose desperate mission is to revive our dying sun by delivering a colossal bomb into its core. Never Let Me Go (2010) adapted Kazuo Ishiguro’s bleak Orwellian tale of a boarding school where teenagers are cloned and used for organ donation.

The three subsequent films that Garland also directed have only deepened the direness. Ex Machina (2014) studied the hubris of a tech billionaire who creates a fully operational AI humanoid. Annihilation (2018) followed a team of military scientists into a mysterious zone called “The Shimmer,” where a meteor strike caused strange biological and zoological mutations, including giant alligators and slithering snakelike creatures that colonize a person’s innards (and must be cut out). The horror-thriller Men (2022) delved into the mental duress of a woman who, following her husband’s suicide, retreats to a rented home in the idyllic English countryside. Visiting the idyllic countryside is never a good idea in Garland. He and his go-to cinematographer, Rob Hardy, have an acute eye for bucolic landscapes and use them ironically to amp up the sense of threat. Garland’s cautionary nightmares warn of something deeply awry both in nature and in human nature, and have established him as horror master for the age of global warming.

And now comes Civil War. This time the disaster is not technological or environmental but political. The setting is the United States of the near future, where mega-states Texas and California have seceded from the union, joining forces to wage war against the federal government. With violent chaos afflicting big-city America, Western Forces (WF) troops—flying a Stars and Stripes with just two big stars on it—are closing in on Washington, where the embattled U.S. president is bunkered in the White House, making his last stand. We follow the events via a trio of New York City–based journalists who set out to cover it: Lee and Joel, both mid-career war journalists, and Sammy, their older mentor.

Garland is an attention-grabbing filmmaker, and his movies tend to hit the ground running, with calamity in full swing. The opening scene in Men, for instance, shows rain falling on a London balcony—a setting sun piercing the storm clouds and painting the raindrops vivid red—as the body of a man falls in slow motion from above, face glazed in terror. Civil War opens with our nation in similar bloody freefall. Garland deftly establishes how violence and death have become the norm. All across New York City, snipers adorn rooftops like decorative gargoyles; bicyclists on the avenues slalom expertly around armored military vehicles. As Lee (Kirsten Dunst) watches the news on TV in her apartment, we see an explosion on the skyline through the window behind her; the apartment shakes, but she doesn’t even glance. That afternoon, while Lee observes a political demonstration on a crowded street, a suicide bomber rushes forward, waving the American flag. Lee, a seasoned war photographer, instinctively shields a young girl standing nearby, the two ducking behind a vehicle. In the aftermath of the explosion, we watch the girl survey the tangled corpses—a child’s stunned and horrified gaze at least briefly restoring, amid the routinized death of civil war, a sense of moral shock.   

Civil War’s plot follows the decision by Lee and Joel (Wagner Moura) to undertake a perilous drive from New York City to D.C. in hopes of interviewing the president before the WF forces capture or kill him. Their mentor, Sammy (Stephen Henderson), a veteran journalist at “what’s left of the New York Times,” cautions them not to go—and then, failing to persuade them, accompanies them instead. Tagging along is Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), the same teenage girl Lee protected in the street, who turns out to be an aspiring photojournalist, and who talks her way in as an apprentice, toting her father’s vintage camera.

The frightening road trip that ensues features highways piled with burned-out vehicles and violence at every turn: an intense firefight between WF militia and loyalists holed up in a building; a pair of snipers hiding out in the ruins of a small-town Christmas market. When the group warily stops to buy gas at a rural gas station guarded by armed men, Lee and Jessie wander around back, where they discover two captives, hung up by their wrists, being grievously tortured by another armed man. Lee takes a photo of him grinning alongside his trophies.

Along the way—despite her cynicism and an accumulated weariness that seems to verge on traumatization—Lee teaches Jessie how to think like a wartime photojournalist. Stopping the car in the parking lot of an abandoned mall, she leads the girl toward a burned-out helicopter in front of a JCPenney store. “Shoot it,” she directs the girl. “It’ll make a good image.” The apprenticeship proceeds quickly to live action, and soon the girl finds herself photographing summary executions. And worse. In one particularly gruesome scene, Jessie tumbles into a mass grave filled with murdered civilians, their bodies covered in lime. With shots that linger on the bodily details of suffering and death, Civil War sets down its protagonists in a garish tableau of cruelty, and leaves us with fearful images impossible to expunge from the mind.

'Civil War' sets down its protagonists in a garish tableau of cruelty, and leaves us with fearful images impossible to expunge from the mind.


Typically, an Alex Garland movie reaches a point where things suddenly get really strange, and terse drama explodes into the surreal. A body sprouting leaves and stems in Annihilation; a ghostly killer in Sunshine; a bizarre, operatically disgusting serial obstetric event in Men. Such outlandish turns make Garland the rare director whose movies can be at once authentically creepy and borderline laughable. Propelling his characters into a murky zone between the real and the weird, he leaves us at times uncertain whether what we’re watching is a dream state, an irruption of the supernatural, or an allegory. Not here, however. Abjuring the quantum leap to the uncanny, Civil War grinds relentlessly on, its violent, newsreel-like realism as remorseless and inexorable as the WF’s march on Washington. The result is authentically harrowing, and I found myself becoming tense with dread. But what, really, is Civil War about?

One thing it is not about is our current politics. When we learn that journalists are routinely executed by the government, it seems like a nod toward Trump’s notorious castigation of them as “enemies of the people,” and there are conspicuous references to Charlottesville, as well as a harrowing scene with a machine-gun-toting soldier (a scary cameo by Jesse Plemons) spouting nativist and racist hatred. But we never learn anything about the ideology of the revolt or how it came to pass. Its poisonous violence seems extrapolated from our current toxic partisanship, and yet its fomenters are California and Texas, those opposite avatars of today’s blue state–red state divide. So what really happened, and how, and why? The journalists themselves seem to have given up trying to parse things. “Once you start asking yourself these questions,” Lee tells Jessie, “you don’t stop. So we don’t ask.”

The lack of context results in some head-scratching scenes. At one point the journalists stop in an idyllic town that has magically escaped damage. “Are you aware there’s a huge civil war going on?” Lee asks a bored saleswoman in a chichi clothes boutique. “Yeah,” she says with a shrug. “But we just try to stay out.” And so our journalists steal an hour from death and destruction to do some shopping. “Did we just drive through a time portal?” Joel asks when they leave. I’m as baffled as he is. How exactly can one town remain exempt when the rest of the country lies in ruins? Is Garland saying something about suburban white people’s obliviousness, or their privilege? Both the political force lines of Civil War and, at times, its basic meanings remain blurry. “No one’s giving orders,” a soldier tells Lee, when she asks who his commander is. “Someone’s trying to kill us. We’re trying to kill them.”

Civil War keeps defaulting to the survivalist facts of life and death in a war zone and the dilemmas of journalists covering war. “Lee has lost her faith in the power of journalism,” Sammy remarks sardonically to Jessie. That may be, but it doesn’t prevent Lee from allowing the girl to put her young life at risk by photographing it. As the WF offensive approaches the capital and the violence ramps up, Jessie gradually evolves from horrified witness to avid chronicler, clicking away as the bodies pile up. It is unsettling to see the familiar trope of war journalist as adrenaline junkie applied to a child. “I’ve never been more scared,” she confesses. “And I’ve never felt more alive.”

The group arrives in D.C. just as the Western Forces are making their final attack—the Lincoln Memorial and other gleaming buildings of the capital going up in flames as the secessionist troops initiate intense firefights down Pennsylvania Avenue, pushing toward the heavily barricaded White House. For Americans right now, a special dread arises from seeing our most sacred civic sites under assault. It is January 6 taken to its logical extreme, and Garland milks it for maximum effect. Yet, watching, I began to get the sinking feeling of something askew. “Lee,” yells a journalist embedded with the WF, “don’t beat me to the money shot!” In the end, Lee does in fact get the prized shot. Civil War’s closing scene (spoiler alert!) has the president lying prone on the floor of a room in the White House, surrounded by rebel soldiers and begging for his life, as our team looks on. “Wait! Wait!” Joel yells when a soldier raises his weapon. “I need a quote!” The president replies with a terrified plea, “Don’t let them kill me!”

“Yup, that’ll do,” Joel deadpans. Note jotted in a notebook, click of a camera, bullet to the head. Roll the credits.

It’s another head-scratcher. Is this supposed to be a trenchant satire of our bottomless appetite for those “good images” that Lee trains Jessie to recognize? An indictment of the voyeurism of tabloid and social-media journalism, and its gross inadequacy at doing anything beyond servicing our desire for the awful? In its closing sequence, as soldiers violate the inner sanctum of our republic and the photographers continue to click away, the film becomes shallower rather than deeper. It is hard not to feel an ad-hominem shiver of contempt not only for the journalists, but for Garland himself—for the whiff of cynical opportunism that floats from his sensationalistic portrayal of our civic agony, and for how he seems to be enjoying himself, in a Dirty Harry kind of way.

Is Garland condemning our appetite for the lurid or gratifying it? For all its cataclysmic intensity, his film seems morally incoherent. Exuding a dark pleasure in the cascade of atrocity it lets loose, Civil War loses its purchase on any civic or political warning it might have been able to mount and opts for mere shock. By the end, with its ravaged monuments and in-your-face money shots, the film seems less prophetic than pornographic.

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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Published in the June 2024 issue: View Contents
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