SXSW 2024: Alex Garland’s CIVIL WAR Embeds Us In A Future We Don’t Want


The lens through which writer/director Alex Garland embeds the audience into his alternate future Civil War is, rather ingeniously, that of combat journalists.

So while the scope, scale, and concept of this film is daring and grand, the focus is intimate and claustrophobic, resulting in one of the most tense theatrical experiences 2024 will have to offer. Garland (Ex Machina, Annihilation) introduces us to four main characters with whom we will be embedded as embark on a road trip from hell across a war torn America in hopes of getting an interview with the President before the Western Forces (a secessionist army made up of a coalition of Texas and California) overpower and take control of Washington, D.C., and with it, the nation. Kirsten Dunst’s (Spider-Man, Melancholia) Lee is a hardened and decorated war time photographer and Wagner Moura’s (Elite Squad, Narcos) Joel is a reporter who’s done countless assignments alongside Lee. From the jump we see the ways that Lee and Joel do their jobs, what coping mechanisms they utilize to stay alive and stay sane, and what kinds of moral quandaries they’re put in as they document and bear witness to the unfolding chaos and violence around them. Stephen McKinnley Henderson’s (Devs, Dune) Sammy is an older, wiser reporter who is clearly a mentor to Lee and Joel, and convinces them to take him on their quest to interview the president. And Cailee Spaeny’s (Priscilla) Jessie is a young, aspiring war photojournalist who holds Lee in awe even as she exposes her own naivete. 

It was worth the ink to set up these four characters because Garland has structured his film intimately around them as they traverse the ruined countryside in their Ford Excursion emblazoned with “Press” markings, for good or ill. Yes, through these characters’ eyes Garland WILL show us an American Civil War; a kind of nightmare that keeps many of us up at night these days, most in fear, but some perhaps in expectant anticipation. It’s a charged film that may provoke and offend some viewers. But Garland’s choice to unfurl this nightmare for the audience through the perspectives of real characters whom we will come to care for and root for, is crucial to Civil War’s success. As politically charged as Garland’s film obviously is, perhaps its most clear angle or message is the essential nature of a free press to functional society. Our characters aren’t necessarily lionized heroes, but rather they’re depicted with authenticity and nuance and perform a specific and essential role in the events that play out.


There’s an episodic nature to Civil War that allows Garland to pick and choose what horrors to show us while also sidestepping any kind of distasteful “blockbuster entertainment” vibes. To be sure, there is an awe that only cinema can bring as we see iconic American locations under siege, bombarded, and collapsing. It’s evocative in the extreme, and did prompt goosebumps from me as a viewer. But Civil War is a deeply serious film more akin to something like Children Of Men, or more recently 1917. It’s a war film, in the trenches, in the muck and mire. It simply depicts a more charged backdrop (like a ravaged JC Penney, a highway overpass emblazoned with “Go Steelers” that also has bodies hanging underneath, or a drive-through car wash that becomes a convenient place to tie up and torture some looters). Lee at one point shares aloud that her whole vision of her career had been chronicling war as a warning so that this exact scenario would NOT play out in our neighborhoods. Perhaps Garland is similarly transplanting the kinds of images we are used to seeing in foreign countries, on far distant shores, of “others”, and bringing them home to roost. It will remain to be seen if Garland’s visuals prompt any of the same kinds of warnings that Lee’s character tried to send with her imagery. Regardless, the embedded and episodic nature of Civil War allows us to get a breadth of experiences in this wartorn future that help us really understand our main characters and what drives them, as well as exposes their humanity as they wrestle with what they’re seeing and experiencing. From a production standpoint it’s an incredible way to tell an ambitious story without a Marvel-sized budget. From a viewers’ standpoint it draws us into the conflict personally and viscerally, ensuring we understand there is no glorification here, no real “winners”. In some ways it isn’t all that complex: this is a “war is hell” movie. And from the characters’ perspectives they’re drawn deeper and deeper into being on the front lines of capturing history as Western Forces descend on Nick Offerman’s President of the United States. 

Garland sidesteps a lot of the potentially offensive or divisive elements that could easily have derailed Civil War. Is it a direct allegory of our current, violently divisive political times? No, it isn’t… but his point is perhaps that war is universal to the human experience and it’s universally bad. Civil War rubs our faces in mass graves and shows us literal snapshots of exact moments when the life leaves a person’s eyes. It’s a profound depiction of a future we do not want, even as we seem to march inexorably towards a deeper division. I’ve heard many question why a movie like this needs to exist now, or whether it’s simply too distasteful of a subject matter to depict in this way. There’s certainly a world where this could have been among the most distasteful films imaginable. And I’m sure Civil War will generate controversy. But cinema is the only artform that can so thoroughly implant you into a fictional world as to transport you into an alternate reality. And Alex Garland successfully enthralls his audience with a world so close to home, and yet so intensely broken, that he gives us space to consider a different path forward. I’m not saying Alex Garland’s film will lead to world peace. I’m simply saying that A24 and Alex Garland did something bold and did it at exactly the right time. Storytellers must take risks and shake us with their visuals and their ideas. Civil War is an intense and profound cinematic experience that uses its medium to shake us violently in hopes that its fiction doesn’t become fact. 

And I’m Out.

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