SXSW 2024: ‘Civil War’ is a Stark, Tense Warning About the Dangers of Divisiveness

Abe Friedtanzer's review of Civil War, the latest film from Alex Garland, which premiered at the 2024 SXSW Film Festival
User Rating: 7

Posters and promotions for Alex Garland’s Civil War tease an all-out action epic that speaks to current divisions within the United States and how they could play out if things got really bad. While that blockbuster might certainly be appealing – and rightfully terrifying – this film is something else entirely. It’s a tense, unflinching cautionary tale about the senselessness of war and the true horrors of the capacity of humanity to do evil. For those familiar with Garland’s past work, it’s likely not a tremendous surprise, but this film is much more of a think piece than a high-octane war movie. 

Civil War opens with the President of the United States, played by Nick Offerman, preparing for an address he’s set to give to the nation. He references the Western Forces, which consist of Texas and California, as well as a separate Florida Alliance, and positions the real Americans almost close enough to victory to touch it. Lee (Kirsten Dunst) is a photographer covering the chaos in New York, working with reporter Joel (Wagner Moura). Their plan is drive south to Charlottesville, where Western Forces are amassing, and to make it all the way to DC to interview and photograph the President. They earn two tag-alongs for their trip, fellow reporter Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and aspiring photographer Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), who meets Lee and tells her that she’s one of her heroes. 

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The drive from New York to DC isn’t far, even if they’re told they have to detour right away since the interstates have all been destroyed. But even the relatively short trip is still treacherous, beginning with a stop at a gas station where two looters await a terrible fate from the men with guns who have caught them. One of the most potent moments finds the press crew encountering camouflaged soldiers exchanging fire with someone in a nearby building, dismissing Joel’s question about not knowing which side their enemy is fighting for because they know one thing: whoever it is is trying to kill them.

Comparisons to what’s really happening in this country today can’t be entirely accurate because, for one thing, California and Texas would never fight together, and Florida seems least likely to secede from the United States, especially given that Offerman’s rhetoric is all too reminiscent of Donald Trump. Those important differences serve to make this film a work of fiction, but its meaning remains just as haunting. No matter who the perceived bad guys are, the goal all military personnel the journalists encounter have is to shoot and kill everyone they come across, a frightening and ominous take on the nature of urban warfare.

It’s certainly chilling to see tanks rolling through DC and the Lincoln Memorial being instantly destroyed in the middle of a battle whose intent seems more to send a message of full-scale mayhem rather than to eliminate specific targets. Even more unsettling are the quieter moments of terror, like when a perfectly-cast Jesse Plemons interrogates the crew and their colleagues to determine if they’re actually American in his book. That his allegiances aren’t clear from the uniform he wears, and the lack of discernible clothing on the many dead bodies he is actively burying, only further underscores the scale of collateral damage in war, when killing a perceived enemy feels far more crucial than actually understanding who or what you’re fighting.

Garland, whose past credits include Ex Machina and Annihilation, has assembled a strong cast to bring these journalists to life. Dunst is hardheaded and pessimistic about the future of her nation, while Moura is gregarious and all too excitable, making his eventual breakdown when things get bad even more intense. Spaeny is a magnetic standout, expressing a deep curiosity for the work she’s getting herself into while not quite having a sense of its scope or irreversibility. Though his role is limited, Offerman also sets just the right foreboding tone for this dark thriller.

Audiences expecting a meticulously-crafted backstory for this war started and who the players are will be sorely disappointed. The action sequences are breathless and tense in a different way than the imagery of the tanks rolling forward with military helicopters flying overhead, like an amalgam of The Handmaid’s Tale and Children of Men. Framing the story from the perspective of war photographers intent on capturing everything they see despite the inherent danger involved is a fascinating entry point, one that leaves much to ponder. The film’s abrupt ending will similarly be jarring and divisive, highlighting just what it is that this film is most about, the ease with which people find ways to hate, villainize, and ultimately kill each other.

Civil War opens in theaters and IMAX on April 12, 2024

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