‘Civil War’ Probably Isn’t What You Expected It to Be (2024)

“What’s so civil about war, anyway?” asked Axl Rose back in 1990, when he and his band had the world’s ear. Nobody would accuse Guns N’ Roses of being a political act like, say, U2, but releasing a single that paid homage to Martin Luther King Jr. while critiquing America’s misadventures in Vietnam was a risky move, especially considering the core demographics of their fan base. For extra pop-cultural cred, “Civil War” sampled the villainous prison warden played by Strother Martin in 1967’s Cool Hand Luke, whose ominously drawled warning of “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate” became a sort of sinister catchphrase—a euphemism suggesting progressive rhetoric wrapped around authoritarian brutality like barbed wire. It’s less that Martin’s character is worried about being understood than that he doesn’t want his charges to talk back.

Alex Garland’s Civil War is a movie with a failure to communicate, though not for lack of trying; its maker understands the visual and rhetorical language of agitprop, but he has such a limited vocabulary as a dramatist—and such a narrow agenda as a provocateur—that it doesn’t matter. There is a significant difference between movies that are polarizing because they ask difficult questions and ones that are simply designed to be divisive, and Civil War belongs decisively in the second category. Not only does the film’s depiction of a near-future America smoldering in the wreckage of its own colliding kamikaze ideologies feel borrowed from a number of other sources, but it also rings hollow, precisely because its vision of violent social collapse is so derivative. In attempting to make a movie largely about the ethical dimension of image making—a dilemma experienced by a group of war correspondents wandering through a country that’s become its own private twilight zone—Garland succeeds mostly in exposing his own limitations. He’s a pulp merchant, a purveyor of high-toned exploitation trying his best to strip-mine an anxious election-year zeitgeist while there’s still time.

The Ringer’s Streaming Guide

There’s a lot of TVout there.We want to help: Every week, we’ll tell you the best and most urgent shows to stream so you can stay on top of the ever-expanding heap of Peak TV.

Officially, Civil War is an original screenplay, just like 2014’s Ex Machina, the wryly funny, sexily technophobic Bluebeard riff that positioned him as, if not the new Stanley Kubrick, then at least a worthy pretender. Like a lot of successful genre filmmakers—including his countryman Christopher Nolan—Garland is an inveterate magpie, subsuming aesthetic and conceptual material from a range of sources into his own vision. And whatever one thinks of films like Annihilation or Men, they are movies with a vision—carefully engineered acts of world-building suffused with atmosphere and punctuated by striking, unsettling moments. Which is why it’s all the stranger that right from the very beginning the storytelling language of Civil War feels so totally borrowed, including a pair of brazen allusions tilting toward copycatting more than homage. The first is a prologue nodding to the opening of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 in which the president of the United States (Nick Offerman) nervously rehearses a none-too-convincing victory speech from behind barricaded doors; the more he talks about his government’s impending triumph over insurgent forces—specifically, a coalition led by the state governments of Florida and Texas—the more he looks and sounds like a cornered rat. The second reference is even more on the nose: At a rally in downtown New York City, a suicide bomber clad in an American flag ignites a booby-trapped backpack, resulting in carnage whose gory imagery and stylized, ear-ringing sound design are indebted to Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men.

It’s worth noting that Fahrenheit 9/11 and Children of Men are keynote works of what could be called post-9/11 cinema—an early-millennial period when both serious and satirical American filmmakers were aligned in trying to criticize (or, in Moore’s case, outright topple) the Dubya White House. With his smug frat-boy countenance and aides who dated back to Nixon, Bush II was the poster boy for “America: f*ck yeah” and a perfect symbolic scapegoat for filmmakers running the gamut from Gus Van Sant to Sacha Baron Cohen. Two decades later, Hollywood obviously still leans mostly to the left, but the terms of engagement have changed. One thing that Barack Obama and Donald Trump had in common was that while their presidencies were both lightning rods for extremist criticism, they didn’t yield much in the way of memorable or great cinema. The closest thing to a cogent popular political allegory in that period was the ever-reliable Purge franchise, which imagined a silent, seething majority perpetually counting down the hours until a preordained, murderous, insurrectionist return of the repressed.

There’s a potentially great, cathartic dark comedy to be made about the psychology of an event like the Capitol attack of January 6, or about the dangers of unchecked autocracy manifesting as common-sense, anti-woke populism (among his myriad outrageous policy moves, Offerman’s commander in chief apparently opted to gift himself with a third term). Garland, though, is not the guy to thread that particular needle: Where a director like Jordan Peele is able to channel seriousness through sketch-comedy absurdism (including Get Out’s earlier and superior three-term president joke), Garland doubles down on the idea that he’s doing important work. The strain is palpable. In interviews, the director has explained that Civil War was originally written before January 6 but that the shadow of the insurrection still fell over the production; talking to Dazed, he admitted that he could “detect [it] around the set” and that the bad vibes gave the production “a greater sense of anger.” It’s an interesting observation insofar as the finished film doesn’t so much seethe with rage as ooze a kind of cynical resignation—the sort that comes when a filmmaker either considers himself to be above his subject matter or isn’t being honest about his relationship to the material.

There’s certainly some kind of irony in a guy whose best work—2012’s Dredd, which Garland cowrote and produced with director Pete Travis—is an (exhilarating) exercise in hyperbolic carnage suddenly producing a sanctimonious statement against violence, but otherwise, Civil War doesn’t seem to come from a particularly personal place. Garland’s fascination with female protagonists over the years is laudable, but, as in Annihilation and Men, he can seem to conceive women only in terms of lack: The main character here is a veteran shutterbug named Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst) who’s grown so inured to the sight of death and decay—and her role in sharing it with an increasingly information-starved public—that she’s basically a zombie. If that’s not enough of a cliché, she’s been given a younger kindred spirit as a combination apprentice and surrogate daughter: Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), a 20-ish wannabe war correspondent whose lack of worldliness is her defining characteristic. Jessie isn’t a character, but a device; her job will be to carry the torch for journalistic integrity after her mentor (inevitably) meets her demise in the line of duty.

Lest that last bit seem like a spoiler, Civil War is the sort of movie in which hard-edged professionals grimly sit around prophesying their own fates. And although Lee’s arc is predictable, the flatness of the role is no fault of Dunst’s; like Jessie Buckley in Men, the actress inhabits Garland’s barren idea of dramaturgy so fully that she occasionally draws us all the way in with her. Spaeny, meanwhile, is livelier than she was as an anesthetized princess in Priscilla, yet Jessie isn’t much more than a cipher—a device through which we witness a series of showdowns between characters of different allegiances or tableaux testifying to the sheer photogenic brokenness of the social contract. In structural terms, Civil War is a road movie, with Lee and Jessie traveling from New York to Washington in the company of two other members of the fifth estate: a hard-drinking (and, it’s implied, possibly sexually predatory) reporter, Joel (Wagner Moura), and an ex-op-ed specialist, Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), both of whom have inside information on the embattled president’s location and hopes of scoring a final interview before he’s toppled once and for all.

Civil War has been set up so that each successive rest stop bristles with a different kind of anxiety. Stopping for gas means encountering a garage’s worth of bloody strung-up dissidents, displayed like trophies for rubberneckers. Despite traveling with the word “press” emblazoned on their van and flak jackets, Lee and her merry band aren’t insulated from the surrounding dangers, and on a few occasions, they even go looking for trouble: A firefight in an abandoned apartment complex eventually finds Jessie growing into her point-and-click instincts. (The juxtaposition of different kinds of “shooting” in this movie is relentless, a pale imitation of motifs developed in Full Metal Jacket, which, like all of Kubrick’s provocations, understood the relationship between savagery and satire.)

A couple of the set pieces are effective, like an idyll in a Lynchian small town whose smiling inhabitants seem oblivious to the larger conflict (the punchline is Garland’s best and shiveriest sight gag), or a pitched battle between snipers whose worldview no longer extends beyond their own scopes. But there are also risible bits, like a nighttime drive through a forest fire where the floating, burning embers are meant as signifiers of some terrible, fatalistic beauty—a scene that, however well shot, practically vibrates with banality. And then there’s the bit featuring a wandering platoon of disillusioned, trigger-happy soldiers—a device Garland used as far back as 28 Days Later—led by a deadpan Jesse Plemons, clad in red heart-shaped shades that mock the idea of seeing the world through rose-colored glasses. “What kind of Americans are you?” he asks our heroes, who, having found themselves on the wrong end of the barrel, don’t know how to answer.

The failure to communicate is ominous, but the question (and its consequences) might be even scarier if we knew what kind of America Civil War took place in. Last month at South by Southwest, Garland got in some trouble when he said that “left and right are ideological arguments about how to run a state” and that he didn’t consider either to be “good or bad.” The statement may have been twisted in bad faith by the media (another irony considering the film’s faith in journalists as truth tellers), but at a minimum, it still suggests a filmmaker who doesn’t want to get his hands dirty with such crass things as sociopolitical specifics.

It may be that trying to fill in the blanks of how the sort of scenario depicted in Civil War could come to pass is a fool’s errand—an invitation to criticism that would weaken an already rickety conceptual infrastructure. (Exhibit A: a fleeting mention of “The Antifa Massacre,” which sounds more like a band name than a possible flashpoint.) But would it really be worse than using America’s current political strife as a coy structuring absence? Would it be worse than Garland acting as if such avoidance makes him the adult in the room? The ostensibly outrageous climax, meanwhile, features sequences of urban warfare meant to drop jaws, but these scenes point in such an obvious direction that the suspense is flattened while the audience is simply flattered into acquiescence. There are a number of genuinely profound movies whose thesis boils down to “war is hell,” several less expensive or pretentious than Civil War, but typically they arrive there honestly, and only after challenging their audience. Civil War, which is somehow simultaneously pedantic and frictionless, feels weirdly like a movie of the moment that won’t last—a victory lap around an observation that was already made by Axl Rose.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.

‘Civil War’ Probably Isn’t What You Expected It to Be (2024)


What is the Civil War movie 2024 about? ›

What was the meaning of the movie Civil War? ›

More Stories by Eisa Nefertari Ulen

Tense, disturbing, riveting, Alex Garland's dystopian film Civil War examines an existential threat preying on the American sub-conscious: What would happen if the political and social divisions cleaving the United States ultimately collapse the nation into the abyss?

What if there was no Civil War? ›

There would be no Union Pacific Railroad, no high tariffs, and no 1860s Republican Party. The ideas of the American System (of industry) that the Republicans advocated would be discarded, as the Republicans would forever be seen as the party that lost the South. This means no Gilded Age.

Is the Civil War movie liberal? ›

The film has no grounding in such partisan politics. The sides are unclear and the ideology — a “Western Alliance” of secessionists from California and Texas — is impossible to imagine given the stark partisan divides between the states.

Is Civil War good in 2024? ›

The movie is overall good in the idea of a war happening within the states can be a possibility, but it was a bit confusing until over halfway through the movie exactly what the civil war exactly was about. It then made a bit more sense but even then hard to really grasp why?

Where was Civil War 2024 filmed? ›

Civil War was filmed in Alonzo Herndon Stadium, Atlanta, Big Bethel AME Church, Hampton, London and Philadelphia.

Is civil war a good movie? ›

How utterly bizarre, you might think. And in the abstract, it is bizarre. But "Civil War" is a furiously convincing and disturbing thing when you're watching it. It's a great movie that has its own life force.

Is the Civil War movie a true story? ›

With an A-list cast including Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Liev Schreiber, and so many more, the impact of this based-on-true-events feature cannot be understated.

Is the Civil War movie violent? ›

Much of the violence is filmed in ways that are crudely manipulative and vulgarly thrill-stoking; in particular, a sequence of point-blank summary executions is done in slow motion, the victims' bodies twitching and jerking with each impact as if Garland wanted to summon the spirit of the ending of “Bonnie and Clyde” ...

What country has never had a civil war? ›

Countries like Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Iceland have never had a civil war like the american or spanish(Finland have though), and the same can be claimed of the Netherlands and Belgium.

Why was civil war so bad? ›

Garland's motives are likely less cynical, but one of the chief criticisms of Civil War has been that the movie — directed with visceral muscularity and led by a haunting Kirsten Dunst — sets up an incendiary near-future nightmare while refusing to clarify the battle lines.

Did the Civil War end slavery? ›

The Emancipation Proclamation and Thirteenth Amendment brought about by the Civil War were important milestones in the long process of ending legal slavery in the United States. Defining the meaning of freedom, however, continued long after the war ended.

Is Iron Man wrong in Civil War? ›

Summary. Iron Man was right in Civil War about the Sokovia Accords - his fear of a threat like Thanos was proven in Infinity War. Not addressing the Sokovia Accords creates problems for the multiverse Avengers in Phase 5 of the MCU.

Was Iron Man right in Civil War? ›

The MCU has proven multiple times that Iron Man was right in Captain America: Civil War. The initial conflict between Iron Man and Captain America was about the introduction of the Sokovia Accords in the MCU timeline - legal documents imposed by the United Nations mandating that all enhanced beings be registered.

Is Civil War basically avengers? ›

After the reveal of the film's full cast, many outlets and fans began referring to the film as "Avengers 2.5 ", given the variety and ensemble nature of the cast, usually reserved for the Avengers films, and the fact that the film no longer felt like a Captain America-centric one, as with The Winter Soldier.

Where can I watch the Civil War 2024 movie? ›

As of November 25, 2024, Civil War is available on HBO Max.

Who is the cast of the next Civil War movie? ›

Cast (59)
  • Nick Offerman. President. Kirsten Dunst. ...
  • Wagner Moura. Joel. Jefferson White. ...
  • Nelson Lee. Tony. Evan Lai. ...
  • Cailee Spaeny. Jessie. Stephen McKinley Henderson. ...
  • Vince Pisani. Concierge. Justin James Boykin. ...
  • Jess Matney. Checkpoint Soldier. Greg Hill. ...
  • Edmund Donovan. Eddie. Tim James. ...
  • Simeon Freeman. Commercial Soldier Mike.

Who directed the Civil War in 2024? ›

'Civil War' Director Alex Garland Reflects on His Career

Civil War filmmaker Alex Garland reflects on his career highlights, including 28 Days Later, Ex Machina, and Never Let Me Go.

What does Tony Stark want in Civil War? ›

Indeed, this was one of the main reasons why Iron Man was actually for the Sokovia Accords in Captain America: Civil War: he wanted to keep the Avengers operating in preparation for what was to come. Tony was never fully on board with relinquishing all control to the U.N.


Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Pres. Lawanda Wiegand

Last Updated:

Views: 5895

Rating: 4 / 5 (71 voted)

Reviews: 94% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Pres. Lawanda Wiegand

Birthday: 1993-01-10

Address: Suite 391 6963 Ullrich Shore, Bellefort, WI 01350-7893

Phone: +6806610432415

Job: Dynamic Manufacturing Assistant

Hobby: amateur radio, Taekwondo, Wood carving, Parkour, Skateboarding, Running, Rafting

Introduction: My name is Pres. Lawanda Wiegand, I am a inquisitive, helpful, glamorous, cheerful, open, clever, innocent person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.