America Falls Flat: on Alex Garland’s “Civil War” (2024)

A stylized shot of actor Jesse Plemons wearing fatigues, red sunglasses, and a rifle in Alex Garland's "Civil War".

Alex Garland’s Civil War has already generated a decent amount of controversy not long into its US release—at least as much as its producers surely intended it to. It is an election year, after all, and with a not unsignificant number of Americans worried about the possibility of there being another civil war on the horizon, it is no wonder A24 would support Garland (the two having previously partnered on his 2022 gender-parable Men) to draw audiences whose grimmer curiosities might be piqued by an English auteur’s take on American self-evisceration, ideological or otherwise. Much of this controversy stems from dissenters’ claims that showing such a film now would be to irresponsibly stoke either viewers’ anxieties or their potential aggressions.

The film, however, for all its purported untimeliness, is too evasive, too pointedly nonpartisan, for these concerns to hold water. The title will likely evoke, for its US audiences, the war between the Union and the Confederacy in the 1860s, but its usage is more about the concept as such than about any particular instantiation. Garland, in simply transplanting the scenes that have played out and are still playing out in stages all across the developing world to the streets of New York City and Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., seeks to explode any remaining “It Can’t Happen Here” sentiments without committing himself to any specific political stance. Not any, at least, stronger than a traditional, almost nostalgic, belief in the need for our institutions (government, economic structures, the media, etc.) to be safeguarded from the ravages of internecine conflict.

Civil War is set in a near-future dystopian America where the country is split into three rival factions: the United States, ruled by a despotic President (Nick Offerman) whose tyrannical consolidations of power have seemingly forced Texas and California to put aside their ideological differences and form the Western Forces, and lastly, a vague confederation called the Florida Alliance. More factions are name-dropped (the Portland Maoists being one of them) but this trio seem to be the main players.

There is Lee (Kirsten Dunst), a famous and severely jaded war photographer who, along with her colleague Joel (Wagner Moura), a Reuters correspondent, aims to travel from New York to a besieged Washington, D.C. and interview the President before the unstoppable Western Forces overwhelm the capital. Along the way they pick up Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), a weary elder statesman of the media circle down for one final rodeo, and naive photojournalist Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) who is reluctantly mentored by Lee after the much younger woman finagles her way into the group.

The narrative itself is formed out of stops (some light, many harrowing) along the group’s odyssey to the capital that are intended not really to elaborate on the whys and wherefores of this dystopia’s politics, but rather to simply rattle the viewer: neighbors string up bloodied neighbors, refugee camps crowd dilapidated football arenas, snipers assassinate wayfarers from the cover of distinguished ranch houses, etc. Garland’s biggest preoccupation, it seems, is not how exactly things got to their current state, but the ethics of war journalism and how “complicit” his characters are in what they witness and, through witnessing, capture.

Alright, that’s all well and good: but is Civil War a quality film? Or is it the liberal reverse of the sort of silly propaganda that conservative studios self-righteously spew?

A shot of actress Cailee Spaeny looking alarmed as she stares out of a car in Alex Garland's "Civil War" (2024)

In answer to the latter question: I’d wager No, since the film actively resists pandering to either side of the political aisle—a decision which has certainly attracted accusations of “laziness” or “disengagement” and even “Bothsidesing.” But then again, let’s be honest—there exists a clear model for the tyrant President’s anti-Constitutional action. Why else would you put a deranged Ron Swanson in the Oval Office? So it’s definitely more artful than something like that Kevin Sorbo-led vomitus, with Centrist/Centre-Left leanings, although that’s neither here nor there. As for the former question (the top priority, for any critic):

Civil War is quite watchable, and well-paced, as its road-movie structure gives Garland a reliable track to pull his audience along, but I do think its merits end on sheer technical solidity. I’m more on the side of Civil War‘s detractors, here: it is an ultimately inert film, with off-the-rack characters and too much moral handwringing on very obvious wrongs for its parade of unnerving scenes to have any lasting impact.

For instance, one of the film’s more chilling episodes in which a xenophobic soldier gone rogue (the always exact Jesse Plemons) almost gets the whole group dumped into a mass grave is offset by the fact that it can be seen coming from the very first moment two foreign journalists are introduced. You know the second they appear that they are throwaways, and that the light-hearted humor they bring to the screen exists solely to be mercilessly snuffed; and really, most of that episode’s effectiveness comes from Plemons’s perfectly impassive performance, which balances out the script’s heavy-handedness.

And to call a film technically solid, or competent, is not to say that it isn’t also somewhat canned. Online barbs of Civil War being nothing but a sanctimonious Roland Emmerich flick replete with images of destroyed American iconography for the sake of masochistic shock-value are not without substance. Garland attempts to leaven this with his interrogation of the journalists’ ethics (because this is a film for intellectuals, you see) but where does that go?

I can recall a decision near the end when Garland has Lee and Jessie mimic the actions of a Western Forces fireteam as the soldiers gun down Secret Service remnants, and I think it’s an interesting decision, and a well-choreographed one. But what’s being said here? Are Lee and Jessie actually just as complicit in those war killings as the soldiers? By choosing to involve themselves so deeply in the fray, are they acting at the very extreme of ethical irresponsibility? Can people be just as detached as their cameras, or rifles?

Perhaps if Garland wrote the journalists as something other than clearly opportunistic jackals, more subtler points could’ve been teased out of such themes. As it stands, we are led to understand that such detachedness can only come about by murdering one’s conscience (Sammy being its primary avatar; Lee, at the end, as she is, surprise-surprise, ultimately replaced by Jessie, who increasingly takes after the adrenaline-junkie Joel and not her memory-tormented photojournalist idol) and that yes, sometimes we can let ourselves be beguiled by the imagery of the moment rather than its moral consequence. And that if we continue going down the path of utter tribalism to its logical, violent and fascistic ends, our souls will be just as desolate as the streets of a war-torn America, as bombed-out of redeemable value as the Lincoln Memorial in the film’s final climax, and so on and so on, etc. and all that.

Maybe if Garland had simply titled his film differently, had given himself a more oblique, i.e. less generic, entryway into his chosen material, there’d be additional elements to commend. It’s certainly a hot-button topic, internal strife (a country’s, and also a psyche’s, like Lee’s, get it?) as the statistic cited in this review’s beginning attests to—one that numerous reviews have made sure to cite, by the way. In fact, the ubiquity of this growing anxiety might just be Civil War’s entire raison d’être. But choosing to play upon the waves of the times without committing himself to deeper, more creative artistry is quite likely Garland’s most relevant, and greatest, irresponsibility.

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