Alex Garland’s ‘Civil War’ Viscerally Imagines America Turned Into a Scorched Conflict Zone

For Americans, war tends to be seen as something terribly unfortunate that happens abroad, as we watch from our privileged perch in the world order. Yes, we have political instability and plenty of violence at home, while our soldiers partake in wars abroad and are stationed all over the globe. But we never imagine those burning images from the news, of utter chaos and immense destruction, taking place down the street, near the local supermarket or coffee shop. Alex Garland’s “Civil War” imagines just that with chilling plausibility. This film arrives with plenty of built-in controversy because it is an intense election year, where a civil cold war of sorts is ongoing, with Americans split among political factions, and differing social and world views. But Garland is not making some blunt prediction or sloganeering, and his movie is not blind to where we are now. On a larger scale, it asks us to imagine the fear and utter human degradation of war imposed on our everyday surroundings.

In the speculative future Garland conjures that the U.S. is at war between the central government in Washington, D.C., headed by a besieged president (Nick Offerman) and separatists from the Western Alliance (WA) comprised of California and Texas. The main characters are a pair of Reuters journalists covering a battle in New York City, Lee (Kirsten Dunst), a combat photographer, and Joel (Wagner Moura), a correspondent. Amid the smoke and riots, they meet Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), a young aspiring photographer who admires Lee. She is eager to tag along on their planned drive to D.C., where Joel hopes to interview the president. They are also practically pushed into bringing along Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), a veteran writer for “what’s left of the New York Times.” The road ahead will be littered with tension, sporadic violence and updates on a progressing battle edging closer to the nation’s seat of power, the White House.

It has become such a cliché to imagine the apocalypse in movies that viewers looking at the posters for “Civil War” will imagine this film is some seat-shaking extravaganza. Garland isn’t seeking cheap thrills at all. His approach borrows from classic journalism movies like “Under Fire” or “Salvador,” which are set in the wars of 1980s Central America, and transfers their style to the modern United States. Moments of street combat are filmed by cinematographer Rob Hardy as if inspired by searing documentaries like last year’s “20 Days in Mariupol.” The frame will pause into black and white, evoking actual combat photography. Garland’s screenplay feels vivid precisely because he avoids getting too on the nose. Lines hint at the forces at play, without giving explicit monologues on how the conflict began. Jessie references Lee’s work capturing “the Antifa massacre,” which could mean anything. 

Garland, who is English, began as an author with his pulse on the zeitgeist. His best-known literary work remains “The Beach,” a novel about Gen X escapism adapted into a 2000 movie by Danny Boyle. He understands that the U.S. is such a fracture of idealisms, groups and history that civil war here today would be something more akin to what happened in Syria, where multiple groups, ranging from leftist Kurds to ISIS, splintered. It would look nothing like our last actual civil war over 160 years ago. Garland avoids buzzwords or catchphrases from our current moment. What he evokes is the feeling in the air that we’re headed towards a social cataclysm. In the subtext we can find clear references. The president is subtly menacing, speaking in monotone hyperbolics about “the greatest military victory in history.” The journalists come across a militiaman (Jesse Plemons), reeking of fascism, demanding to know “what kind of American are you?” These are characters borrowing from figures we see on the news or all around us, representing the forces pushing the country to violence.

As a director, “Civil War” marks more growth for Garland. This is quite ironic considering he has publicly stated he may not return to directing anytime soon. His best films, “Ex Machina” and “Annihilation,” are immersive sci-fi stories about human relations and loss, playing around with nightmarish unease. In 2022 he made “Men,” a strange parable about misogyny with effective moments and a puzzling finale. In “Civil War” he focuses on absolute realism. He wants to evoke the boiling tension from dispatches by journalists like Robert Fisk, Chris Hedges and Ryszard Kapuściński in an American landscape. By hitting the road with the characters, vistas regularly associated with picturesque American living are now distorted by burning stores and highways littered with scorched vehicles. Smoke rises from suburban areas. Militiaman could be torturing someone behind a gas station. The sound mix has a stark quality bringing out the actual pulse of gunfire. The way driving down an empty road in a war-torn country can mean total danger, especially when a swerving vehicle appears behind you, is familiar to survivors of civil wars in El Salvador or Colombia. Plemons’ armed nationalist watches over piles of corpses dumped into a ditch, as if this were Gaza. When combat reaches D.C., Garland doesn’t stage it like a Michael Bay production. In real life, war is boredom, brutal survival instinct and inhumanity. 

The performances work despite being vehicles for ideas. Kirsten Dunst and Wagner Moura have that combination of exhilaration and being desensitized. Dunst’s Lee is almost haunted by having captured so much death with her lens. Moura’s Joel masks any of his own issues with the adrenaline kick of diving back into a war zone. Cailee Spaeny, who broke through last year in “Priscilla,” avoids turning her character into another cliché of the younger, naïve wannabe. By the end of the movie she learns what the job entails, with its excitement and horror. We don’t need much more for these personalities. The most we learn about some of their personal lives are comments about parents living in farms away from the war, pretending it isn’t happening. In a country this vast, such a detail sounds all too believable. The details are as layered as Omar El Akkad’s novel “American War,” which also imagines the U.S. fighting itself. El Akkad’s approach was the same as Garland’s, in avoiding hyper polemics to create a “you are there” feel.

“Civil War” culminates in what could be called a final showdown that may prove controversial. Garland isn’t looking to be wholly provocative in the sense of inciting a political argument. What his movie does is provoke us into pondering the sheer idea of what would happen once we cross the line between debate and outright conflict. Even “The Forever Purge,” which is a cartoon by comparison, made more direct references to our ongoing, increasingly volatile points of debate. “Civil War” might prove to have an eerie timelessness. At first viewing, its unsettling power is in suggesting this scenario. The truth is it is happening already in Gaza, Ukraine, Syria, Sudan, and many other corners of the world beyond our walls. Garland powerfully poses the reality that wherever humans have settled and built societies, conflict brews. What we see on our phones and news pages may not always be so distant. It already happened here once 160 years ago and it could happen again. That’s a sequel no one should want.

Civil War” releases April 12 in theaters nationwide.