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Civil War

Whatever you expect from an Alex Garland movie, he always gives you something else."Civil War" is something else again. It premiered in the US hours before I published this and it's already divisive. I look forward to reading all of the arguments for and against, even though both early raves and pans seem to be operating under the reductive assumption that it's one of three things: (1) an alternative future history of a divided United States that's intended as a cautionary tale; (2) a technically proficient but empty-headed misery porn compendium that derives much of its power from images redolent of genocide and/or lynching, but ducks political specifics so as not to offend reactionaries; or (3) a visionary spectacular with ultra-violence that might or might not have something important to say but will definitely look and sound great on an expensive home entertainment system.

As it turns out, "Civil War" is mainly something else: a thought experiment about journalistic ethics, set in a future United States, yet reminiscent of classic movies about Western journalists covering the collapse of foreign countries, such as "The Year of Living Dangerously," "Salvador," "Under Fire," and "Welcome to Sarajevo." 

How utterly bizarre, you might think. And in the abstract, it is bizarre. But "Civil War" is a furiously convincing and disturbing thing when you're watching it. It's a great movie that has its own life force. It's not like anything Garland has made. It's not like anything anyone has made, even though it contains echoes of dozens of other films (and novels) that appear to have fed the filmmaker's imagination.

Specifically, and most originally, "Civil War" is a portrait of the mentality of pure reporters, the types of people who are less interested in explaining what things "mean" (in the manner of an editorial writer or "pundit") than in getting the scoop before the competition, by any means necessary. Whether the scoop takes the form of a written story, a TV news segment, or a still photo that wins a Pulitzer, the quest for the scoop is an end unto itself, and it's bound up with the massive dopamine hit that that comes from putting oneself in harm's way. The kinds of obsessive war correspondents who rarely come back to their own countries don't care about the real-world impact of the political realities encoded within the epic violence they chronicle, or else compartmentalize it to stay focused.  

The main characters of "Civil War" are four journalists. The film introduces them covering a clash in New York City between what appear to be police forces from the official government and violent members of the opposition (we have to infer a lot because Garland drops you right into the deep end, as Haskell Wexler did in "Medium Cool," about a news cameraman covering the 1968 protests in Chicago). Kirsten Dunst plays Lee, a legendary white female photojournalist in the mold of her namesake Lee Miller. She's partnered with a South American-born reporter named Joel (Wagner Moura). Both work for Reuters news agency and are fond of Sammy (veteran character actor Stephen McKinley Henderson), an older African-American journalist who writes for “what’s left of the New York Times,” as Joel puts it; he walks slowly on a cane, definitely a liability when covering protests and battles. 

The group gains a fourth member, Jessie (Cailee Spaeny, the title character of "Priscilla"), a kind of junior version of Lee who idolizes her. Jessie charms the hard-drinking, on-the-prowl Joel and ends up joining the trio as they drive to Washington, D.C. in hopes of interviewing the president (Nick Offerman) before he surrenders to the military forces of something called the WA, or Western Alliance. The WA consists of militias from California and Texas (with secondary support from Florida, which is apparently a different separatist group that shares the WA's values). 

The first full-length trailer for "Civil War" got picked apart as if it were the movie itself rather than an advertisement for it (a weird regular occurrence in "film discourse," such as it is). But the actual movie turns out to be more politically astute and plausible than early reactions said, even though it's likely that Garland's "you already know the story" approach (like the way the overall arc of the US occupation of Vietnam was depicted in "Full Metal Jacket") will seem to validate the gripes for the first hour. Yes, it's true, Texas votes Republican in national elections and California votes Democratic, but as of this writing, Northern California is increasingly controlled by libertarian-influenced tech billionaires, and much of central and eastern California leans Republican and loathes California Democrats so much that they've advocated "divid(ing) parts of coastal California, including the Bay Area, from California to become an independent country." The president is referred to as a fascist. I’m not sure how literally we’re supposed to take that because both Trump and Biden have been called that by people who don’t like them.

But if you had to make a list of what "Civil War" is trying to do, "diagnosing what ails the United States of America" might not crack the Top 5. Yes, if you wanted to treat the movie so reductively, you could. But if you pay attention to what the movie is actually doing rather than cherry picking elements that validate whatever take you brought in with you, it won't be easy. I went into "Civil War" with arms folded, expecting to hate it, because so many contemporary films about US politics by foreign filmmakers seem to have cribbed their worldview from New York Times editorials and bad Tweets. It upended my preconceived notions.

As far as "future shock" goes, Garland, an Englishman, isn't cynically avoiding specifics or talking out of his behind. He's burying the text under subtext, in the name of creating a compelling but credible experience, until said text explodes through the screen via Jesse Plemons, who has a cameo as a soldier who might or might not be a Western Front officer but is surely a parasite on the remnants of the body politic. This soft-voiced, smirky hellion interrogates the terrified group of journalists (which consists of two white women, a native-born Black man, and a South American emigre, plus an Asian-American and a Chinese immigrant who joined them on the road) with all the delicacy of Gene Hackman's racist white cop Popeye Doyle terrorizing Black people in "The French Connection" for kicks.

A terse line of dialogue reveals that Lee became famous for taking a prize-winning photo of something called the "Antifa massacre" when Jessie was very young. "Antifa massacre" is initially tossed off in a way that makes you wonder if Garland is hoping progressives will assume it was anti-fascists who were murdered by reactionaries, but reactionaries will assume it was the reverse. Thanks to Plemons' demonic showstopper and the thunderous, ultimately chilling finale (set during the attempted coup in Washington) I think it's clear what happened. But your mileage will vary.

Nevertheless, these characters aren't constantly exposition-ing to each other and explaining the world to the viewer because that's not what people would do in real life, whether they were trying to survive mass extinction in Gaza or Ukraine or endure a military dictatorship in Argentina or Myanmar. Indeed, one of the most fascinating (or if you don't like it, perplexing) aspects of "Civil War" is that it often plays like an artifact warped into our world from some future popular culture that has decided it's finally time for a "big statement" movie in the vein of "Apocalypse Now" or "Full Metal Jacket," but for people who remember an American Civil War and have enough perspective to consider buying a ticket to a blockbuster about it.

Garland is known as mainly a science fiction storyteller. He wrote "28 Days Later," "Sunshine" and "Dredd," adapted "Never Let Me Go" from Kazuo Ishiguro's novel, and wrote and directed "Ex Machina" and "Annihilation," all of which had an intense and believable physicality on top of dealing in metaphors and visceral experiences. (He also did the gender essentialist horror flick "Men," which some people defend but that I consider his only failure.) "Civil War" isn't science fiction, exactly, nor could it be described mainly as "speculative fiction," although it falls under that umbrella. The world-building is masterful. But the world-building is not the movie. 

I appreciated it as a story about journalists whose own country is cratering but who keep chasing the story and are determined to catch it even if it kills them. Would they have embedded themselves with Hitler's army if they'd somehow survived behind enemy lines in Germany in the 1940s and been given the opportunity? I wouldn't rule it out. They will probably come across as unlikable, or at least off-putting, to most viewers—the New York Times and other supposedly "neutral" mainstream outlets have come under fire in recent years for seeming to give the rise of American fascism the "both sides" treatment, and when their reporters are called out, they often say that their only duty is to tell the story. Certain members of certain professions have that code. Other members disagree. Both factions are represented in "Civil War," but in a fictionalized context that asks "Is the storyteller's highest obligation to tell what happened or choose a side?" and then lets the audience fight over the answer. A case could be made that the title is not just about the civil war in the future US, but within contemporary journalism. 

I've purposefully avoided describing a lot of the story in this review because I want people to go in cold, as I did, and experience the movie as sort of picaresque narrative consisting of set pieces that test the characters morally and ethically as well as physically, from one day and one moment to the next. Suffice to say that the final section brings every thematic element together in a perfectly horrifying fashion and ends with a moment of self-actualization I don't think I'll ever be able to shake. 

This review was filed from the SXSW Film Festival. It opens on April 12th.

Matt Zoller Seitz

Matt Zoller Seitz is the Editor at Large of, TV critic for New York Magazine and, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism.

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Film Credits

Civil War movie poster

Civil War (2024)

Rated R

109 minutes

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