At The Movies: Action thriller Civil War is a portrait of an America eating itself alive

2 minute read

APR 10, 2024, 


The story: In an alternate present-day United States, war has broken out between the federal government and a group of breakaway states. War photographer Lee (Kirsten Dunst) and journalist Joel (Wagner Moura) embark on a dangerous trip to Washington, DC. Along the way, Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), a budding photographer who hero-worships Lee, asks to join them, but Lee resists the idea.

There will be those who see the idea of an American civil war as far-fetched. Then there are those who think it is inevitable. 


Whatever one’s stance is, note that the work of British writer-director Alex Garland tends to be speculative, but is also grounded in current realities.

In the crime thriller The Beach (2000) – starring Leonardo DiCaprio, co-written by Garland and directed by Danny Boyle – the South-east Asia backpacker experience is seen as colonial exploitation, dressed in Chang beer T-shirts and flip-flops.

In the horror classic 28 Days Later (2002), written by Garland and directed by Boyle, the protection offered by the army against zombies is a fate worse than being out in the open. 


Garland’s Civil War could be a companion piece to 28 Days Later. A zombie plague brings down the United Kingdom, as does weaponised disgruntlement in the United States. The beliefs underpinning the conflict are never made clear; Garland is interested in the primal, not the political. 

As Lee, Joel and Jessie travel across the country, they meet men with guns brutalising one another, with the labels of friend or foe, federal soldier or rebel becoming irrelevant.

The gunmen, like the armed forces in 28 Days Later, are former little guys giddy with newfound power. When all you have is a gun, every problem can be solved with a bullet.

While the battle scenes are viscerally thrilling – there is an emphasis on realistic chaos rather than clean movie-style action – the journalists’ encounters with the gunmen are the film’s highlight. Each face-off is a slow-burn, white-knuckle lesson in how things can go south, quickly.  

At the film’s climax and biggest battle scene, Garland puts in a bleakly humorous callback to how the difference between a “war crime” and an “act of justice” depends on which side is in charge of the newspapers and television stations.    

The veteran-versus-rookie interplay between Dunst’s Lee and Spaeny’s Jessie is handled with care, serving to make both characters realistic and relatable but also, in their own way, tragically self-destructive. 

Hot take: It is said that the first casualty of war is the truth. But as this gripping cautionary tale shows, the first casualty is humanity, even when the conflict occurs in a nation that believes itself to be exceptionally moral.

-------- END --------