On Set: ‘Civil War’ reveals a dystopian future America

KHOL film critic Jeff Counts reviews the new worst case scenario thriller from director Alex Garland.
Photo credit: A24

by | Apr 11, 2024 | Culture, Film & TV

America has been a “say the quiet part out loud” place for years now, so edgy partisan opinions are not as scandalous as they perhaps once were. But what Director Alex Garland (who we know from “Ex Machina” and “Annihilation”) attempts to show us about where such a stressed reality might lead is indeed shocking. It’s usually aliens or zombies who demolish our American institutions and turn our cities into dangerous wastelands, not us ourselves.

“Civil War”, out now in theaters, presents a near-present secessionist conflagration in the United States. Put simply, the Western Forces, led by Texas and California are at war with the American government. There are other factions in the mix, but they don’t figure into the story being told here. We join the action through the lens of a tough-as-nails press photographer, played by Kirsten Dunst. She and her small team must travel from New York to Washington D.C. to get the scoop of a lifetime, and their journey through various conflict zones alternates between eerie calm and complete terror. The America they encounter resembles ours in the broadest strokes but stops short of making anyone’s allegiances clear. It was smart of Garland to keep the politics vague in “Civil War.” With only a few crumbs dropped about what life under Nick Offerman’s president character is like, we don’t get the binary left-right anchor points we’ve become dependent upon these days. We have to guess why the Western Forces are really fighting and we have to imagine what kind of man “the leader of the free world” is in this fictional construction. It’s an interesting risk for Garland to take, leaving that up to us. But his gamble helps “Civil War” exist somewhat outside of the specifics of the actual tribal American public discourse that inspired it.

That’s not to say that viewers won’t have personal, highly ideological reactions to what they are seeing onscreen. Anyone who holds strong beliefs about government and liberty, regardless of party affiliation, might find those views strengthened by this depiction of unrest and violent action. And there it is – Garland’s great trick in “Civil War”. If he’s right with his calculations, the granular motivations of the forces at play in his movie are just obscure enough to encourage agreement from the theater audience, instead of further division. It’s a pity that this alignment, assuming it does occur, will be based on a scenario that nobody should want. Ever.


Purely as a film, “Civil War” works well as a thriller, and it does so best in the small moments when the ensemble cast is allowed to invest in itself. The mentor-mentee relationship between Dunst’s Lee Smith and Cailee Spaeny’s Jessie is particularly well written, but the big action stuff, especially the harrowing final 20 minutes, feels a little too much like a mid-game level of “Call of Duty”. Also missing from the tonally disconnected final act is a good story conclusion for Lee. She is a powerful, complex energy at the center of everything in “Civil War”, and the last turn of her arc is hollow and cheap. She deserves so much better.

Alex Garland is playing with fire with “Civil War”, and I applaud him for making us confront the possibilities of the world we are building. From visuals to performances to emotional punch, he gets just about everything right. Only the ending falls short of his gutsy, virtuosic vision. I don’t know whether Garland’s political ambiguity will lead to more argument in our oppositional country, or if it will foster agreement for the wrong reasons. Both possibilities worry me, if I’m being honest, but I might be overthinking. A third option is that people will just watch and enjoy this thought-provoking piece of art by a director who deserves a lot more acclaim. It doesn’t have to be more than that, does it?

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About Jeff Counts

Before moving to Jackson in 2019, Jeff spent five years reviewing movies as co-host of the public access television program "Big Movie Mouth-Off." When not focused on film, Jeff writes about opera and co-hosts the classical music interview podcast "Ghost Light."

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