Metro Weekly

Civil War’s Internal Conflict (Review)

A riveting account of a divided nation at war, Alex Garland’s "Civil War" cops out by remaining too vague in the details.

Civil War: Kirsten Dunst and Cailee Spaeny - Photo: A24
Civil War: Kirsten Dunst and Cailee Spaeny – Photo: A24

For a while now, voices in the mist who’ve had an early peek at Alex Garland’s dystopian thriller Civil War have warned the film might be irresponsible or too incendiary in its brutal depiction of a United States divided and engulfed in war. In the dire future presented in the film, Americans confront each other in military combat within their own cities, on their own doorsteps.

Starring Kirsten Dunst as intrepid war photographer Lee Smith, leading a ragtag crew of journalists into combat zones to capture the harrowing stories and images, the movie certainly does not play shy about showing intense, bloody warfare. 

Borrowing violent combat and protest footage from real-life events — and, reportedly, in some cases, from alt-right sources — Garland constructs a tense, at times frightening vision of this country ruptured past the point of no return. The movie is crafted as a warning, but one with very little context.

Civil War truly might have inflamed the culture wars or sparked a rebellion somewhere, if only it had followed through on its nervy portrayal of conflict between the states to fill in the blanks about who’s fighting whom and why.

We do know, after an on-air address from the President of what’s left of the United States (Nick Offerman), that California and Texas seceded to form the Western Forces, while the secessionist Florida Alliance is on the march across the South. The fine folks of the Carolinas, he says, have declined to join the Florida Alliance, which is funny, and also feels accurate.

We do not know how much time has passed since the big split occurred. Did the Western Forces and Florida secede all at once, or over an extended period of media-stoked buildup? What was the match that finally lit the fire? Were they attacked by U.S. military forces? Or, maybe aliens, because are we supposed to believe that the California and Texas legislatures found common ground for going to war with the rest of the U.S.?

Do those questions matter as much as the fact that Americans have fatally turned on each other, the film seems to say. Well, yes, Mr. Garland, if you’re going to take the podium from your cozy perch in London, then get up there, make your points, and stand on them. Yet Civil War opts instead for a both-sides, either-side, who-cares-which-side point of view that sidesteps ideology almost entirely.

From scene to scene, Garland purposely obscures whether combatants onscreen are fighting for the United States, the Western Forces, members of the Florida Alliance, or unaffiliated factions simply protecting their homes and loved ones.

Civil War: Cailee Spaeny and Kirsten Dunst - Photo: A24
Civil War: Cailee Spaeny and Kirsten Dunst – Photo: A24

Are the gaggle of gun-toting dudes standing sentry at a gas station in Pennsylvania loyal to the U.S., or are they occupying members of the Western Forces? Driven journalist Lee — teamed with compassionate hotshot reporter Joel (Wagner Moura), neophyte photojournalist Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), and elder field reporter Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), who’s literally on his last legs — never finds out conclusively.

On a mission to reach the White House and interview the President, Lee and crew roll through perilous fights filled with tanks, Humvees, and helicopters, and legions of soldiers and militiamen, but rarely come across clear marks or insignia delineating who is fighting whom.

No one on the battlefield is as clearly identified as these members of the press, who all wear and flash press badges, and speed into, and out of, conflagrations in a white SUV with the word PRESS emblazoned in comically bold font on each side.

In fact, one soldier, in the midst of a tense standoff, jokes about it to Lee.

She asks him who’s on the other side of this deadly standoff. The guy who’s trying to kill him, he responds, as if nothing else matters.

Jesse Plemons, in a typically compelling turn, plays a soldier who isn’t joking at all interrogating captives with one do-or-die question: Are you an American? Not everyone passes his test. But then, what kind of American is he? Whether he’s a U.S. patriot or a Western Forces fighter who considers himself a true American isn’t clear, and it does matter, if we’re to be invested in more than the exhilarating thrill of gunfights and car chases.

Deliberately paced for maximum suspense, and uniformly well-acted, the film supplies ample meaningful details about Lee and Joel and Jessie, who, like any headstrong action-movie protégée, will get herself and her friends in trouble biting off more than she can chew. Wise old Sammy, embodied with world-weary snark by Henderson, most likely will meet exactly the fate anyone who’s seen a movie like this would expect.

Civil War: Stephen McKinley Henderson - Photo: A24
Civil War: Stephen McKinley Henderson – Photo: A24

Garland offers some happy surprises, though, among the shocking, CGI-assisted images of bombed-out cities and subdivisions, and unnerving confrontations between countrymen. The movie allows for chuckles here and there, usually with winking needle drops on the soundtrack, or grumbled asides from Sammy. Garland also throws in a really cheap joke at Lee’s expense that isn’t worth a chuckle.

But the biggest joke in the movie probably is the single conspicuous use of the word “Antifa,” as if that were ever a real thing and not just a boogeyman invented to scare up a war.

Civil War (★★★☆☆) is playing in theaters nationwide. See it in IMAX if you can. Visit

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