top of page

Civil War

A24, 2024


Alex Garland

Reading Time:

6 minutes

Civil WarQuiet Desperation Part 2 (21TRXKFWFOPYJLBU)
00:00 / 05:57

📷 : Used with permission, Ryan Layah

Civil War


Image of movie's tea brew

Movies and TV shows with intense action


Image of movie's tea brew

Movies and TV shows with great visual effects

Chris Chaisson


There is a lot of talk in screenwriting circles about world-building. Audiences tend to go with the flow and suspend their disbelief if you can establish early what universe they will be escaping to: the protocols, the hierarchies, and the consequences. Generally, there will be a common thread between our society and the one we are introduced to, and moviegoers tend to recognize it while latching onto all of the fantasy. Alex Garland has gained a reputation over the last decade for his dystopian futures. Between Ex Machina, Annihilation, and Dredd, he has provided us our fair share of robots and aliens. But a dystopian future does not have to be science fiction; it could simply exaggerate the same conflicts that currently exist. Instead of machines and animals being more human, maybe human beings are a little less so. Garland presents such a universe in his newest A24 project, Civil War.

Kirsten Dunst plays Lee, a war photographer hardened by decades of prominent and dangerous work. Much of society has broken down, and major metropolitan areas have become wastelands overrun with militia men fighting amongst each other. A specific rebel group is heading to Washington D.C. to overtake the White House and assassinate the president, played by Nick Offerman. Before what seems inevitable, Lee, her press partner Joel (Wagner Moura, Narcos), and longtime friend Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson, Lincoln), embark on a trip from New York to D.C., hoping to beat the rebel groups there to get a scoop with the Commander-in-Chief. Before heading out, they are joined by the ambitious twenty-something Jessie (Cailee Spaeny, Priscilla), an aspiring photojournalist looking to follow in Lee’s footsteps. Jessie embraces the danger associated with the profession, or so she believes, despite Lee’s skepticism.

Similar to a show like The Walking Dead, Civil War goes the route of explaining very little to its audience about how we got here and even what exactly is going on currently. For much of the film, we simply follow Lee and her group blindly on their trip, our uncertainty mirroring theirs. I’d imagine many expected a thorough rundown featuring flashbacks and exposition dumps in the first 30 minutes. Instead, the audience is dropped into several large gunfights with no real sense of what side anyone is on or what instigated any particular conflict. This style of storytelling could have a polarizing effect, as some people want all the information upfront. Others may decide that this is the most effective way to build the universe. Knowing what we know about our socio-political climate, a story about a very muddied up war on our own soil seems self-explanatory. The most dangerous people that the main characters encounter simply act on their own prejudice without speeches or explanations, which feels true to real life. Also, without context or preambles, the audience cannot take sides or empathize with any particular group in combat. 

The biggest takeaway from the film is how in this dystopian setting, our main characters have become very desensitized to the loss of life. Lee has had to compartmentalize witnessing violence while doing her job for many years, and she no longer seems to have the need to process it. Joel and Sammy are much the same way, while Jessie learns quickly the difficulty of this task. Both Lee and Jessie clearly love the art of photography, and at times throughout the movie, they speak about “getting the shot” when the shot in question is a dead or dying person. As the story progresses, Lee and Jessie’s sensibilities seem to switch, as one’s jitters disappear while the other’s return. However, this theme of desensitization continues all the way until the very last moments of the film.

While the crew’s reaction to the violence around them may come off cold and detached, they are the closest we get to a humane presence on screen. Most of the other characters simply fight and kill one another, with no indication that anyone is merely defending themselves. Even characters outside of the field of battle seem to lack compassion. For instance, as Lee lugs her stuff toward an elevator at her hotel in New York, the front desk clerk informs her of the inconsistent power connection and the potential to be stuck mid-trip. Rather than pitch a realistic alternative for someone on the tenth floor or an emphatic warning, he states it matter-of-factly, still willing to let Lee risk her own safety. Similarly, while stopped in a town removed from any of the war violence, a cashier expresses complete disinterest in engaging with Joel or Lee. She merely answers their questions in aloof fashion before returning to her book. Such moments reveal a subtler reflection of the times they are in than the militaristic violence happening. Even aside from death and destruction, people are apathetic and disconnected from each other, making it easier to dehumanize them.

War movies tend to fall into two buckets: a fictional representation of an actual war in world history or human beings fighting another species (i.e. zombies, robots, or aliens). For this reason, it is difficult to come up with a comparable dystopian future war film, other than the Mad Max franchise. However, the theme of journalism’s ability to desensitize individuals is reminiscent of the 2014 thriller Nightcrawler. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a driven but sociopathic individual striving to make a footprint in crime journalism at any costs. While Lee and Jessie are much more grounded, they share with Gyllenhaal’s character a seemingly disproportionate focus on perfectionism in work amidst a swath of inhumanity.

Sign-up for new reviews, exclusives, deep dives, and more

Thanks for joining us!

bottom of page