‘Civil War’ – Raw, Original and Utterly Pointless

Scrupulously apolitical thriller feels lost despite some chilling sequences

Alex Garland wasn’t kidding.

The writer/director of “Civil War” said his dystopian thriller didn’t take political sides. The film bears that out, focusing entirely on journalists scrambling to cover a country at war with itself.

The problem? “Civil War” isn’t action-packed in a traditional, rah-rah sense. Nor does it shed new light on what it means to be a war correspondent.

What’s left? Visceral moments and the sense that almost anything can happen on screen. Like Garland’s previous film “Men,” that sense of storytelling chaos papers over plenty of flaws.

And “Civil War’s” flaws could fill an AT&T phone book.

Civil War | Official Trailer HD | A24

America’s second Civil War may be reaching a critical stage, and veteran photojournalist Lee (Kirsten Dunst) is racing to D.C. to capture it. She’s joined by an aging New York Times scribe Sammy (Stephen Henderson), her fiery partner-in-crime Joel (Wagner Moura) and a rookie shutterbug named Jessie (“Priscilla” standout Cailee Spaeny) who talks her way onto the team.

They know danger lies ahead, and the early leg of their road trip confirms those fears.

Meanwhile, the beleaguered U.S. President (Nick Offerman) says the war against the Western Front is going well, but reality offers a different perspective.

Can these intrepid reporters stay alive long enough to photograph history in the making? 


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by A24 (@a24)

“Civil War” strips away every important element of the conflict. Why did Texas align with California against the president? How did the seceding states snag so much military hardware? What caused the split in the first place? How did the country’s political parties feed the fissure? Why did this president disband the FBI and declare a second war against the press?

No clues are given. None.

Garland erases all of the above, but he struggles to replace them with something substantial. We learn that some war journalists are often adrenaline junkies.


Others have seen too much mayhem and take a soulless approach to their craft.

So why don’t they ever, you know, do some journalism? We never see Joel so much as crack a notebook open to capture what’s unfolding. He’s not a photographer, so he must be a reporter … right? The same holds for Sammy.

Lee and Jessie are constantly snapping pictures, but they’re never in touch with their editors or are shown transmitting photos. 

The only notable arc is how Lee initially treats Jessie. The young journalist looks up to Lee, but Lee insists the 20-something isn’t ready for the gig. She recalls being a young reporter herself, and the memory alarms her.

That early friction could have led to an interesting, mentor-like relationship. Garland’s screenplay doesn’t follow that thread to its natural conclusion.

You could argue that “Civil War” says everything it wants to say in the first half hour. The rest of the film is a jangle of raw nerves and uncertainty.

That’s often where Garland shines.


Garland’s previous film, “Men,” may have been flawed, but his nimble camera work made even daffy sequences crackle. Here, the perils faced by the journalists give the film a sense of purpose, and his camera once again makes every tense moment count.

One extended sequence, featuring the great Jesse Plemons as a redneck rebel, is so unnerving it carries us to the final, formulaic battle. The scene wraps with a ghoulish visual sure to haunt audiences.

Politically speaking, all sides behave badly. We see amateur soldiers killing others for sport. Western Front types similarly exterminate their foes without a second thought.

President Ron Swanson is a fascist.

War … is hell. That’s a message always worth sharing, but why pit Americans against each other to do so?


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by A24 (@a24)

Offerman’s President isn’t a certain real estate mogul. In fact, he’s barely on screen. That’s another massive mistake, especially given how the story’s third act makes him such a monumental figure. Plus, casting Ron Swanson as a fascist leader is such a juicy idea why not follow through with it?

Make no mistake. He’s the film’s villain. So why can’t we get to know him, at least a little?

The journalists on the run fare a little better. They’re relentlessly strong in pursuit of the story, and none suggest the kind of rampant corruption found in real-life journalism today.

Yet another missed opportunity.

“Civil War” is rarely dull, but its fiery finale features more than a few missteps. That includes an emotional epiphany that never happens.


It’s equally stunning for a film to arrive with such culture war fanfare and deliver so little in return.

HiT or Miss: “Civil War” strips away every socio-political element of the war in question, but it fails to compensate with something equally tart.


  1. Thanks for giving me tangible reasons for disliking Civil War. Offerman a the villain? Not sure. Jesse Plemon? Anything he’s in. Also: PRESS is protected. Where were medics?

    Perhaps I was hoping for payoff. Shooting up Washington was as disturbing as watching selective video of Jan. 6.The final shot, soldiers around President’s desk, grinning ridiculously, of course reminiscent of killing Osama.

    Left me soul empty.

  2. When I saw the trailer months ago I got excited- I thought maybe Schlicter had gotten a writing credit.

    More the fool I.

  3. First mistake is making biased journalists the protagonists. They are no longer honest brokers. Second, civil war in this scenario will never happen. It needs to have some relevance to today’s politics. California will likely pair up with far left coastal western states like Washington and Oregon. Texas will carve out the central and southern states. The northeast New England states will align towards the midwestern states like Illinois. Colorado will align with New Mexico. Nevada and Arizona could go with California unless they go right.
    This movie is a missed opportunity. There is no winners. Our country is already on the decline with illegal immigration and the corrupt Federal Government agencies and kangaroo courts.

    1. It’s just a matter of time before America ceases to even exist outside of our memories and history books.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to top button