Chaos and Despair in Alex Garland's 'Civil War'

Civil War, the latest and final directorial work by Alex Garland, plunges viewers into a harrowing dystopian future where a team of journalists navigates the ruins of a civil war-torn America

by Sededin Dedovic
Chaos and Despair in Alex Garland's 'Civil War'
© Lionsgate Movies / YOutube channel

Civil War is a dystopian thriller by director and screenwriter Alex Garland, known for his works Ex Machina, Annihilation, and Men. He has announced that this will be the last film he directs. The story is set during a civil war raging across the United States between an authoritarian federal government and several regional factions.

It follows a team of journalists traveling from New York to Washington to interview the president before the rebels take over the city. Premiering at the South by Southwest festival on March 14, it was acquired by A24, making it the highest-budget film in the company's history (50 million dollars, surpassing Beau Is Afraid).

This film exists not in a time when political division has become unsustainable but long after that fact. Not in televised debates and amidst loud protests, but in cities and places already in ruins. Not in the midst of current ideological fervor but in the harsh reality of this quite possible future.

I believe there are viewers in the US who are angry or disappointed that their beliefs are depicted in this story, but someone's inability to separate personal politics from a broad, self-evident warning like this Garland film is part of the reason why such a warning is necessary in the first place.

For instance, we never learn the president's party affiliation in this film, whom Nick Offerman portrays as a man under unimaginable stress trying to maintain control that's slipping away minute by minute. All we know about this man is that the secessionist force sees him as a tyrant and he speaks in clichés about victory, forgiveness, and future unity.

On the other hand, the western forces of the united Texas and California certainly have a reason to leave the US, whether they are rebelling against an illegitimate leader or defending themselves from his attacks. Although I understand that for some viewers this is a minus, the lack of hints about what started the war is one of its great strengths because we don't have the opportunity to take sides or attempt to morally and legally consider the causes of this civil war; instead, we experience it in the moment.

Those moments are horrific, harrowing, and haunting, witnessed and recorded by a group of journalists who know that the tide of conflict has turned, the western forces will sooner or later be in the White House, and the president's time in office and probably his life is coming to an end – the journalists want to reach him before that end arrives.

Civil War (2024)© Lionsgate Movies / Youtube channel

The journalists are somewhat stereotypical characters: Lee (Kirsten Dunst), Joel (Wagner Moura), and Sam (Stephen McKinley Henderson). They have known each other for years, personally from reporting on the civil war and professionally by reputation.

Lee is an experienced photojournalist who has covered war zones worldwide. She has become so hardened by watching people die that it's hard to say if violence affects her anymore. During the journey, she recalls the faces of wounded and doomed people staring at her as her camera prepares to capture their last moment of life.

Joel is her professional companion on the trip, working as a reporter for the same news agency and determined to interview the president before his end, although veteran Sam is not sure if any of them will be able to enter the capital without being shot as soon as they are spotted – rumors circulate that the administration and the US military treat journalists this way, but specifics and the real truth are lost in the fog of this conflict.

The last member of the team is Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), a young and ambitious photojournalist who left the impartial ignorance of her family farm in Missouri to do what her heroes, including Lee, do.

Civil War (2024)© Lionsgate Movies / Youtube channel

Narratively, this is mainly an excuse for a road trip and a series of thoughtful conversations about the necessity, dangers, and contradictions of journalism.

Lee no longer understands her job because, obviously, no one in this country has paid attention to the bloody consequences of the war she photographed. Sam knows the dangers but wants to continue despite his age and health, and Joel clearly gets an adrenaline rush from the action.

Jessie somehow navigates through the horror, and her excited smile and unwavering gaze during action and siege suggest that she has found some answers herself. Visually, this leads to images and sequences of cognitive dissonance as almost every imaginable concept of the American landscape – cities, main streets, highways, shopping malls, suburbs – becomes ruins, engulfed in flames, or preparing for the coming battle.

On their journey, the group found themselves in the middle of a firefight in an abandoned office complex, caught on one side of a sniper showdown, and became unwitting witnesses to the burial of civilian bodies in a mass grave.

**Civil War** is a disturbing dystopian thriller and a stunning close-up view of a nation in crisis with imaginative potential lacking more developed characters and a slightly more defined film story.