Civil War – Film Review (2024)

By Naomi Roper

Kirsten Dunst excels in Alex Garland’s violent, harrowing ode to war correspondents. 

America is at war. The President is in hiding in the White House while the Western Allied Forces (of Texas and California) advance. Sensing that the President is in the dying days of his regime Lee (Kirsten Dunst) a renowned war photographer and her videographer Joel (Wagner Moura) set off on a road trip to Washington so they can interview and photograph him before he is deposed. Washington DC, once the great capital of the United States is now a place where they hang journalists on sight. Accompanying them on this suicide mission are Jessie (Cailee Spaeney) an eager new photographer and Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), an old timer who wants the thrill of the chase one more time. But chasing the perfect shot comes at an incredible cost. 

Civil War is a propulsive, harrowing and prescient look at violence and war. Writer/director Alex Garland captures the bravery and insanity that comes with dedicating your life to documenting human atrocities. The war correspondents in this film are adrenaline junkies, chasing history while trying (and failing) not to let the sheer horror of it all mar their souls. And there is plenty of horror – men strung up for looting, overflowing refugee camps, mass graves of innocents caked in Lyme and endless gunfire. Garland is unflinching in depicting the violence that men can inflict on each other. The final sequence of the film where the journalists roll into Washington while bullets rain down on them is up there with the best action sequence of any blockbuster. It’s loud, disorientating and genuinely horrifying. 

But amongst the horror, there are smaller, quieter moments that resonate – Lee’s shy, rare smile when her photo is taken in a new dress and a moment of peace where she watches dandelion clocks while soldiers take out a sniper targeting them.

Civil War is a welcome return to form for Alex Garland after Men proved to be too esoteric for audiences and critics alike. (We all love Rory Kinnear but perhaps we didn’t need quite that much of him). Not that Garland’s work is ever anything less than interesting. He’s not capable of making a dull movie. While Civil War isn’t quite up there with his masterpieces Ex Machina and the criminally underrated Annihilation it’s still thoughtful, intelligent filmmaking.

 Civil War is anchored by Kirsten Dunst’s exceptional turn as Lee. Lee is a haunted, weary soul.  Every atrocity she has witnessed throughout her career as a war correspondent is there for the world to see, carved deep into the lines of her face. Both diamond-hard and surprisingly vulnerable Lee is a mass of contradictions. She’s a woman slowly shaking apart at her core, the gunfire and violence no longer something that cannot touch her. It’s a fantastic role and Dunst plays the hell out of it showing the gentleness and humanity behind Lee’s cold exterior. 

Wagner Moura is all charm and charisma as Joel the adrenaline junkie videographer who can’t wait to get to the action while Stephen McKinley Henderson provides gravitas as the crafty old hand who knows that his time as a correspondent is nearing an end.

Cailee Spaeney, fresh off her turn in Priscilla and soon to go supernova in Alien: Romulus, plays Jessie, the wannabe photographer and war correspondent who tags along for the ride. Spaeney does the best she can with the role but while the character starts out endearing she rapidly becomes profoundly irritating. In a movie which is otherwise relatively grounded Jessie’s lack of common sense means that she routinely puts herself and her companions in danger (oh hey of course you should wander off by yourself at this gas station populated with heavily armed mistrustful men – that’s a fantastic idea). The fact that Jessie has all the survival instincts of a suicidal lemming makes her character borderline unbearable to watch. But there is an ambiguity to the role which is fascinating. Afterwards, I found myself unable to decide whether Jessie was a pushy, idiot kid way out of her depth or a manipulative, craven bitch who flirts with the drunken Joel to purposefully insert herself into the trip with the aim of usurping Lee’s place. A sequence in which Jessie asks Lee about how she became a photographer with Jessie (who earlier professed that Lee was her hero) only able to recite highlights from Lee’s wikipedia page certainly leaves open the possibility that Jessie is not quite the adoring fangirl she appears to be. The less charitable interpretation of her character is certainly more interesting than the doe-eyed idiot alternative. Jessie is, of course, meant to be the audience surrogate – becoming harder and desensitised to the horror as the movie progresses. But that seems a little trite and obvious for Alex Garland, a man who had Rory Kinnear giving birth to himself in Men

Jesse Plemons (Dunst’s partner in life) shows up as a gun-toting soldier (complete with hot pink Ali Express sunglasses and chirpy all-American demeanour) and is instantly the most terrifying thing in the movie. Garland wisely keeps his appearance to an extended cameo as he’s so strong an extended appearance would have unbalanced the whole movie. Nick Offerman (having a banner year following his Emmy award-winning turn in The Last of Us) is entertainingly pathetic as the President. 

Civil War desperately wants to be this generation’s Children of Men but it doesn’t achieve the same level of greatness. For as gifted a screenwriter as Alex Garland is the storytelling here is frustratingly obvious. The ending is so heavily telegraphed, so early in the film that it becomes a physical presence in each scene weighing everything down. Perhaps that’s the point. A certain character’s fate is so obvious, so clear to the audience, that watching them being drawn to an utterly inescapable fate is like watching a car crash in very slow motion. But that doesn’t make the movie much fun to watch at times.

Secondly the lack of any type of definable politics in the movie, while intentional, ultimately seems like an act of storytelling cowardice. War huh. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing. Garland’s themes don’t delve any deeper than the catchy lyrics of a bygone pop song. We never know what caused the civil war, what the Western Allied Forces stood for, why Texas and California (two places that are typically ideologically opposed) are aligned or what caused them to want to split from the Union. We’re told that Washington murders journalists on sight but we never see that threat played out or even any real hint of it. The forces the journalists are embedded with do everything to keep them safe but more out of begrudging duty than any recognition that a free press is something to be cherished. We never know the President’s politics, why people are following him or why the Western Allied Forces are prepared to ignore the Geneva Convention to execute him and his staff on sight. The lack of any type of political viewpoint makes for a frustrating and toothless viewing experience. The Purge movies had more political bite than this. Admittedly a left versus right political divide would have been equally obvious and tedious from a storytelling perspective. But in a world in which the news brings us new atrocities every day from the conflicts in Gaza and the Ukraine for Garland’s movie to have no clear political viewpoint other than war =bad is extraordinary. 

Anchored by Dunst’s superb turn Civil War is a fascinating, provocative movie which is probably best viewed as a sobering elegy to war correspondents everywhere. 

4 Stars

Civil War is out in UK cinemas on 12 April 2024
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