CIVIL WAR Is a Vapid, Apolitical Mess with Little Meaning

Writer-director Alex Garland’s Civil War is a nightmare, but not because it takes place in a dystopian war-torn United States. He has made a film about modern day America that has absolutely zero interest in modern-day America. He’s told a political story devoid of almost all politics. The movie is a warning about a possible future that has no interest in how or why the present might lead us to violence. Civil War is so desperate to stay above the proverbial fray of partisanship—the very thing driving modern-day American to a possible schism—that it simply pretends partisanship doesn’t exist. The result is a vapid and largely incoherent movie that it has absolutely nothing of merit to say.

Civil War opens during what we’re told is likely the final month of brutal battle that has nearly destroyed the United States. It’s only a matter of time before secessionist forces reach the White House and depose the President. How did the country get to this point? The only reason the film provides is that Nick Offerman’s Commander-in-Chief is a de facto dictator. We’re told he’s been elected to at least three terms (and likely more). Also at some point he dissolved the FBI. It’s not much, but it’s enough to let us fill in the blanks.

His manner of speaking in grand, provably false absolutes also makes clear he’s at least partly inspired by Donald Trump. That is essentially the only real political commentary the film even hints at, which is also why it is the movie’s only interesting idea. What if, instead of a ridiculous goon, the next would-be fascist is a smart political animal right out central casting? How susceptible would this country be to such a figure and what horrors would follow his ascension?

Nick Offerman as the President at his lectern framed by flags in Civil War
Murray Close/A24

That terrifying thought is a classic basis for a dystopian story, and its connection to the America of today couldn’t be more obvious. Only Civil War does nothing with it. Instead, the film uses that foundation to tell an insipid story so completely removed from reality that the film renders itself meaningless. Because apparently that would-be dictator could gain unimaginable power without help from anyone! He’d just either rewrite or ignore the Constitution all on his own without support! And when he did, California and Texas—the film’s conquering Western Forces—would unite to fight him. As would Florida. And also some other unnamed states. Some parts of the country would sit the whole thing out, as though that would even be an option.

Which states in Garland’s country—where context, division, and politics doesn’t exist—would fight for such a President? Who is—and you’d think this would be a very important answer to give—the other side of the civil war? The movie doesn’t tell us, because if it did it that would be a political statement and we can’t have that. Civil War isn’t about blue and red places! It’s about how Americans are all equally good and we all equally hate fascism. Clearly. It’s not like actual people and politicians are leading us on a path to the very war Garland is so worried about. No, fascism will just sort of happen and then we’ll all be really upset about the one person who did it all on their own. Texas and California will both definitely and equally hate that guy.

Kirsten Dunst and Cailee Spaeny crouch down near a car while an explosion goes off behind them in Civil War

It’s really easy to see what Alex Garland is saying with this film, which is exactly why it feels like a witless disaster. There’s no nuance. There’s no anything. He merely is saying that if fascism comes to this country, it won’t matter who is responsible. Republicans and Democrats alike will all bleed when the shooting starts. At that point who cares who started it? All that would matter then is uniting against it. To say that Garland not only ignores what might really cause such a war, he pretends America is something it is not. He’s trying to talk about society while talking about an America that doesn’t exist. Civil War is dystopian story that has no political thoughts, analysis, or philosophies. It’s also void of any logic or ties to reality.

As a result, its only actual idea boils down to nothing more than, “War is bad and war could easily come to America.” Yeah, obviously.

Jesse Plemons as a soldier holding a gun and wearing red glasses in Civil War

If that’s all you have to say about America in the year 2024, then you have nothing to say about America in the year 2024. You aren’t even interested in America as a real place worth thinking about. You just want to pontificate about where we’re headed without doing the real work of addressing who is leading us there and why. Civil War is like a person who says, “Both sides are just as bad,” without explaining what they dislike about either side. If Civil War could vote it wouldn’t, yet it would always complain about partisanship while calling itself a centrist.

It would also publicly proclaim how important the free press is while also posting on Facebook every journalists sucks. Because whether intentional or not Civil War presents the media as totally useless.

Wagner Moura leans over someone sitting in a chair to talk in Civil War

The film follows a group of journalists trying to make their way to Washington D.C. before the Western Forces get there. Somehow, in the middle of an American civil war, everyone suddenly loves the media— another laughable component of a film totally disconnected to current reality—even though the media does nothing. Wagner Moura’s Joel never writes down a single note or records any interviews. He just loves seeing people blown up.

Meanwhile, Kirsten Dunst’s Lee is a celebrated veteran photojournalist who realizes her entire career and life has been completely pointless. She wanders the wasteland in an existential haze, in a film that argues journalists can do nothing to shape the world with their coverage. They can only document its demise. (Not that anyone ever files a single report or image.) It’s a bleak, underdeveloped idea.

Kirsten Dunst as a photojouranlist amid a fiery red night sky in Civil War
Murray Close/A24

The only saving grace of the movie is the performances of its four leads. In addition to Moura’s fun, unhinged Joel, Dunst is terrific in an understated starring performance. Cailee Spaeny is also great as a young photojournalist learning from her hero. And the always fantastic Stephen McKinley Henderson provides a gravitas the film desperately needs. All four are far, far better than the script. (As is Jesse Plemons who shows up for the film’s best sequence, a terrifying moment that takes place in a totally different, much better movie where fascist Americans actually exist.) The four main characters all have depth in a movie that is otherwise completely shallow.

Civil War has one other thing going for it besides its cast. During its last 30 minutes it stops being a thoughtless, puerile movie of apolitical nonsense and becomes a traditional, competently-made, boring war film. Who is shooting at whom and why? And what’s at stake? Who cares. Civil War definitely doesn’t, and neither should you.

Civil War

Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist who thinks Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is a perfect movie. You can follow him on Twitter and  Bluesky at @burgermike. And also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.

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