Civil War Will Set Your Senses Ablaze

Alex Garland’s terrifying dystopian war movie takes an apolitical bent for a political purpose.

Inverse Reviews

A disorienting premonition, Alex Garland’s Civil War yanks us into a dystopian future United States that doesn’t feel too far in the distance, even though the movie goes to great lengths to skirt around political specifics. This disconnect is hard to reconcile at first, but the further it goes on, the more it pulls back on its opaque fabric, revealing a surprisingly lucid portrait. A story of war photographers who observe, capture, and transmit history’s horrors, it bears little resemblance to its action-heavy trailers, but instead reveals something far more thoughtful and visceral. If you meet it on its wavelength, it’ll leave you shaken.

Kirsten Dunst plays a veteran war photographer who makes her way across the wartorn country.


Civil War is set to receive an IMAX rollout, though it wasn’t shot with IMAX cameras. Rather, it employs the handheld, digital DJI Ronin 4D, imbuing each scene with a sense of lived-in verité, as though it were documenting an actual war. Its opening images feel more befitting of a TV screen than a large cinematic canvas, with enormous, tight close-ups of the U.S. President (Nick Offerman) laying out the bare facts of the premise. A military victory is near, or so he claims, against a pair of secessionist states, Texas and California, Then, the movie shifts gears to a suicide bombing on the streets of New York, carried out by a woman waving an American flag, as she charges into both protesters and police.

What does all this mean? Who are all these factions, and what are their political alignments? Who’s targeting whom, and why? Civil War doesn’t really lay this out, but it quickly establishes that veteran war photographer Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst), her Reuters colleague Joel (Wagner Moura), and young photography upstart Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) see capturing these events as a vital duty. Along with elderly New York Times journalist Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), they make their way across a hellish landscape in the hopes of reaching Washington D.C. at great personal risk — we’re told many journalists are executed by the government on sight — to chronicle what appears to be the climax of a long-brewing conflict.

Civil War lays out this plot roadmap early and simply. There are no winding turns that spin the movie on its head, no genre twists that alter its fabric. There are, however, dangerous detours that function as bone-chilling vignettes. Each violent escalation along their route forces our protagonists to hunker down and think long and hard about their journalistic calling.

Dunst and Spaeny are tremendous as the hardened journalist, and the naive ingenue, respectively.


The leading trio represents a singular trajectory, along which Garland may well find himself as a filmmaker capturing increasingly intimate images and experiences. The spry, young Jessie cares deeply about her work and about impressing Lee, her childhood hero. Lee, on the other hand, has become hardened to the vicious world around her, whose dark heart she buries deep within herself. Her job, as she has come to understand it, is to observe and report, though her refusal to intervene has left plenty of scars. Dunst wears this quiet despondency on her face in every scene, just behind a stone-cold exterior that seems ready to crack. PTSD flashbacks to war zones in Africa and the Middle East see her photograph gut-churning war crimes, which Garland captures with shocking and upsetting realism.

And then there’s Joel, who seems personable and responsible, but reveals perhaps the darkest streak of any character on screen — including the numerous vigilantes and executioners with whom the characters cross paths. For Joel, war is a thrill, and bloodshed puts a smile on his face, but this Jessie-Lee-Joel triptych of up-close observers suggests this wasn’t always the case. Lee is our point of view character, after all, and Jessie reminds her of who she once was before her cynicism set in. Perhaps Joel is who she might become if she fully sheds her humanity in service of her job. But there are so many instances where she struggles to breathe, to move, and to come to terms with what she’s doing in this war-torn dystopia — losing herself to the chaos almost seems preferable.

The way Garland shoots this chaos is downright terrifying. The leads often find themselves in the middle of shootouts between the U.S. military and the similarly-uniformed Western Front as they become a part of the action, moving and ducking alongside soldiers and militia members, and even becoming targets themselves. This mayhem is often interrupted by black and white freeze frames, as seen through the characters’ camera lenses and accompanied by the clicks of shutters. We not only see the photos they take but experience them as isolated moments. It’s as though Civil War is urging us to project our own thoughts and assumptions upon these images, which Lee hopes will force her audience to question the world around them. “We record so other people ask,” she says.

Civil War brings Alex Garland’s skills to transcendent new levels.


Despite the film’s insistence on obfuscating its political landscape, questions about its premise constantly loom, but Garland seems keenly aware of this inevitability. On one hand, that a film uses the United States as a backdrop for such charged images, without looking past the country’s political surface, can be a puzzling experience. On the other hand, Civil War essentially treats the U.S. the way Hollywood productions have treated Middle Eastern settings for the last few decades, as symbols and metaphors first and foremost, with tone and landscape superseding real-world specifics, despite the shocking, naturalistic violence of many modern war films.

It's the kind of movie that could’ve only been made by a non-American filmmaker (Garland is British), or at least someone disconnected from sentimentality towards symbols of American history. A step back from its lack of granular, bipartisan U.S. politics seems like a slippery misstep at first — even the president’s political alignment goes un-mentioned — but a further step back, to a more global scale, reveals an even larger and more discomforting picture. As the notion of “It can’t happen here” has shifted slowly to “Maybe it could,” Civil War leaps forward to the idea of “It will, and this is what it’ll look and feel like” by employing America’s own reductive political and cinematic language as it’s long been applied to foreign policy, weaponizing it in the form of rousing scenes and nerve-wracking crescendos that resemble Zero Dark Thirty.

Gut-churning images reminiscent of Middle Eastern war zones after they’ve been touched by American militarism make for the movie’s most brutal sequences. The one time Civil War seems to hint at some kind of political roadmap to the nation’s schism — using the creepy talents of Jesse Plemons — yields a political hodgepodge where you can track the underlying cruelty, but the actual perspective is confounding. Plemons’ ruthless militia character lays out his perspective, though the divisions he sees — Colorado and Missouri are the “real America,” but Florida isn’t — don’t map onto any existing real-world beliefs. This arbitrary zealotry, however, feels intentional, as though it were reflecting a distinctly modern incarnation of nationalistic fervor. It’s like coming across a convoluted social media screed from someone so entrenched in conspiracy theories that you have to squint just to recognize any hint of reality in what they believe.

Civil War’s boldest thesis works because Garland is not from America.


With a dissonant, upbeat soundtrack that recalls the psychological disconnect of Full Metal Jacket, Garland has crafted what feels like a transitory work, leaving behind the nesting-doll metaphors of Men and the introspective ruminations of Annihilation, in favor of something more intuitive and instinctive. Civil War’s meaning lies in the texture of the images themselves, rather than verbose explanations. His next film is reportedly an all-out war movie (rumored to be set during the Iraq War), which is an exciting and terrifying prospect now that he’s hunkered down to reflect on his role as a storyteller wielding such volatile imagery.

That Civil War uses this current, incendiary, post-January 6th moment in American history as its launchpad will understandably frustrate some viewers, since it reveals no instructive commentary on the current political moment. But the characters’ resultant struggle between observing and intervening is one that Garland wrestles with in the form of his enrapturing images of urban warfare, which he synthesizes into an upsetting sensory experience accompanied by thundering cacophonies and paralyzing scenes of war and savagery so vast, intense, and overwhelming that you can practically taste the gunpowder lingering in the air.

Civil War premiered at SXSW 2024 on March 14. It releases in theaters on April 12.

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