Review: Civil War (2024) (ENG)

Back to the index, Movie Reviews in English / a review by Alejandro Franco

4 atómicos: muy buena

USA/GB, 2024: Kirsten Dunst (Lee Smith), Wagner Moura (Joel), Cailee Spaeny (Jessie Cullen), Stephen McKinley Henderson (Sammy), Nick Offerman (US President)

Director: Alex Garland – Screenplay: Alex Garland

Plot: In the near future the United States is mired in a second Civil War. The states of Texas and California have risen up against the central power, where the President of the United States is in his third term and operates, de facto, as a dictator. With the rest of the states radiated from the conflict, allied or turned enemies, the United States has become a war of all against all. Veteran war correspondent Lee Smith has been through too many conflicts for the bloodbath to affect her; instead her assigned editor, Joel, enjoys the adrenaline rush of being in the middle of the battlefield. Lee’s plan is to make a suicidal trip to Washington and interview the President before the rebel forces reach the White House, capture him and shoot him; but he is joined by two unexpected companions: a young photographer named Jessie Cullen – for whom this is her first rodeo in a war scenario – and veteran journalist Sammy, who wants to experience this historic moment firsthand even though he is at the end of his career. The quartet will have to make a huge journey plagued by dangers of all kinds, from fanatical militias to armed farmers and trigger-happy lovers, watching civilization fall apart and give way to pure barbarism.

Review: Civil War (2024) (ENG)

This is the English version of our original movie review – you can read the original review in Spanish at this link

A few days ago I read in a major entertainment portal (unfortunately I can’t find the article, and I have the impression that it was deleted) the transcript of a debate between three journalists of some renown about whether Alex Garland’s Civil War was realistic. Two of them responded with an impressive arrogance that it could never happen on American soil, that the man-bomb scene was stupid and that such things only happen in the Middle East, and that it was a tendentious delirium released in an election year where Joe Biden and Donald Trump will again clash heads to see who gets the presidency of the United States… a duel in which both candidates stink, either by ideology, government capacity, or simply by age.

Sure. This from a guy who lives in a country where there are white supremacists, school shootings every other day, “Deep America” is armed to the teeth, there are ultra-religious dueling FBI people, and where a mob took over the Capitol a few years ago thanks to the tirade of a maniac who refused to acknowledge that he had lost the election.

Of course, the journalists are a case of severe political myopia. One believes that one’s own country is the best in the world (even more so if it is the United States), but the truth is that the USA has become, in recent times, a powder keg where any madman with power and incendiary speech can ignite the spark of an insurrection. The Capitol was not an invention of Alex Garland; mobs taking to the streets has already happened in real life. That in a more serious case in the near future things may not happen in as orderly a fashion as Garland exemplifies, does not detract from the fact that the central point – the possibility of U.S. democracy imploding under radicalized discourse and armed people taking to the streets – has its share of validity and prompts you to reflect on the current reality.

Of course one sees it from the outside, but for Americans Civil War is a horror movie. To my mind Garland’s ultimate purpose is similar to that of the telefilm The Day After. In the 1980s the tension between the USSR and the United States was about to explode and everything seemed to indicate that Thermonuclear War was imminent. The Day After was shown on TV and the next day Ronald Reagan (President of the United States at the time) was so terrified by the scenario the film painted for him that he immediately called the Soviet Premier and they began to lower the decibels of the discussion. Here I think Garland wants the film to raise awareness and get the most stubborn people on both sides of the political divide to change, and discuss the terms of politics in a reasonable way… especially knowing that the possibility of Donald Trump’s victory in the 2024 presidential election is very high.

Certainly the baseline scenario Garland paints is not very credible. You have a wave President Trump who is going for a third term, has disbanded the FBI (possibly to cover up some shenanigans investigation against him) and has set himself up as a dictator. He has a handful of core states that function as allies. On the other side are Texas and California, which declared themselves rebels and are going up towards Washington. The choice of two such dissimilar states – at the moment Texas is Republican (conservative) and California Democrat (liberal), but they have changed political sign throughout history – is not to point fingers and say that the film is anti-Trump (Biden also has his share of dirty laundry). On the other hand, there are two extra sides, named in passing: the Southeast has formed the Florida Alliance, and the Northwest (the most rural sector of the United States, full of preppers and friends of the National Rifle Association) has set itself up as The New People’s Army, which would be militia-dominated states. But the central feud is Texas & California vs. Washington and allies… and Washington has been having a hard time, despite the triumphalist speeches of the president played by Nick Offerman.

Luckily Garland leaves most of the details hazy, because the story is really about Americans fighting Americans. Civil War is a road movie where a group of people go from point A to B (in this case, the goal is to do a story on the president before he’s captured), and what we get is a motley crew of characters: the novice photographer (Cailee Spaeny), the war-tanned journalist so dysfunctional that she’s indifferent to bloodshed (Kirsten Dunst, in the best role she’s had in years), the adrenaline-addicted correspondent (imagine the journalist version of the guy from The Hurt Locker; Wagner Moura, in a stunning performance), and the veteran who loves his profession and wants one last scoop (Stephen McKinley Henderson, he who was the Atreides’ Mentat in Dune 2021). As the country is dismembered, what you have is not much different from a post-apocalyptic scenario a la The Last of Us, but without zombies. Militias that control the gasoline traffic (and, being convinced that the American State has disappeared, they only believe in trading in dollars… Canadian dollars!); crazy people who went out with their rifles to liquidate anything that moves in front of their houses; people who pretend to go on with their lives as if nothing happened, even when they have no electricity and there are soldiers stationed on the roofs of their houses; and of course the usual supremacist nutcases. The scene where the group runs into Jesse Plemons and he starts asking them if they are real Americans is a masterpiece of tension and horror.

If the construction of the fictional scenario is too ambiguous and possibly not credible, everything that happens in the middle and at the end is formidable. Garland takes some notes from Kubrick and Dr. Strangelove (especially the shot of crackpot general Jack Ripper’s barracks), and films the scuffles in documentary fashion, with guns blaring thunderously, the camera glued to the gunner and shaking from the gunfire, and people falling dead in the most graphic way possible. Americans were horrified by this, but they still flocked to see the film… and therein lies the hypocrisy. They are appalled to see Americans against Americans, or Americans putting a black man wrapped in a tire column and setting him on fire… and that kind of uncontrolled and brutal violence has occurred both within the United States (remember the massacres of African Americans on the Mississippi in the 1960s?) and in every international theater of war that Americans have participated in from 1945 to the present. Similar abuses and massacres occurred in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Irak… ah, but now the enemy is a white, Protestant, average-culture American, and here is the horror of seeing the streets flooded with corpses of first world guys while Muslims, Vietnamese and people of other nationalities can be slaughtered in pure entertainment movies like 12 Strong, The Hurt Locker or 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. Life isn’t about playing Call of Duty in the safety of your expensive suburban home and thinking that any non-white guy can be shot dead without a twinge of conscience to get to the next level. If the enemies are as American as you are, then the feeling of outrage is enormous. How ridiculous.

Except for the American revolt scenario, everything else is typical of a solid war film. The veteran journalist teaching the rookie the ropes. Each stop on the journey is surrounded by terrible circumstances. The climax has its share of shocks but, what the heck, since Americans don’t know history and think the world ends in Mexico, they don’t know about the massacre at the Moneda Palace when Pinochet forced his way in to kill President Salvador Allende during Chile’s 1973 coup d’état. For us (the latin americans) it is old, bitter and super familiar history; for them, a shocking scenario impossible to assimilate. Look at the irony of watching Americans take a spoonful of their own chocolate.

Alex Garland’s film could have worked exactly the same in another scenario, e.g. the Gulf War, but by taking it to the USA (and presenting a sampling of the local species – what to expect from a nation where the civilian population has almost as many weapons as the army? -) ended up shocking everyone. As a war film Civil War is super solid. As political fiction, the scenario is too neat and not very believable. Yet Garland still manages to shock. Garland is a craftsman specialized in sinister futures and disintegrating worlds – from 28 Days Later to Dredd -, and although Civil War is not the best of his work, it already achieves (by far) its purpose of shocking the American audience.

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