Review: Civil War | SXSW 2024

Score: B

Director: Alex Garland

Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, Cailee Spaeny

Running Time: 109 min

Rated: R

With so much unrest in the United States these days, Alex Garland is not alone in wondering if the country could see a second civil war soon. However, most of us don’t have the resources to make a big-budget film about our musings. Written and directed by Garland, Civil War is less interested in political details and instead focuses on what a modern American war would look and feel like. While the film is riveting, its focus on the human experience means it has little to say about an American Civil War besides general platitudes about war.

Civil War very purposely leaves specifics of the conflict to our imagination. All the audience knows is that the Western Forces, led by Texas and California, are advancing quickly towards Washington, D.C. where the president (Nick Offerman) broadcasts stubborn speeches about how he will succeed. Our protagonist, veteran photojournalist Lee (Kirsten Dunst), is determined to travel from New York to D.C. to capture the action alongside reporter Joel (Wagner Moura), senior journalist Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), and ambitious young photographer Jessie (Cailee Spaeny). 

The road trip makes for a perfect plot set-up, as the group must cross through both Western Forces and U.S. territories, showcasing through separate vignettes the direct toll this civil war has had on Americans. From discarded cars on the highway to refugee camps in high school football stadiums to small battles and skirmishes between sides, Garland strives to think up all the different ways a developed nation’s citizens could react.

Rather than dwell in politics, Garland is much more concerned with how humanity reacts to war. What does it do to people? Lee acts detached but relies on compartmentalizing to survive the day. Joel, the first to dive into a battle, relishes the adrenaline. As a newbie, Jessie tries to emulate her idol, Lee, even while her hands are shaking her viewfinder. Then there are the side characters. A shopkeeper in a small town simply ignores the war while a soldier focuses on following orders. Perhaps the most memorable reaction to war comes from an unnamed civilian played by Jesse Plemons. Decked out in camouflage and guns, war has given this man and many like him permission to indulge in violence and hate. “What kind of American are you?”, he asks the group in a truly chilling scene. 

Battle scenes, from snipers to full-on siege, are incredibly loud and jarring, in direct contrast to the quieter road trip scenes. Purposely left with no hints as to who are the “good guys”, these scenes keep the audience in intense suspense like the journalists on screen, creating scenes of gunfire and explosions that put its viewers into the middle of the action. It’s a full-on visceral experience bolstered by great performances from Dunst, Moura, Spaeny, and Henderson.

While Civil War never leaves America’s shores, its focus on how humans are affected by war transcends the Western bubble as modern wars rage on across the world, upturning lives in inescapable reality. It may shy away from being too explicit about American politics, but the film is just riveting enough to make up for its avoidances.


About Katie Anaya

Katie Anaya