Alex Garland’s Civil War Battles Its Aimless Cynicism

Movies Reviews Alex Garland
Alex Garland’s Civil War Battles Its Aimless Cynicism

At the end of Alex Garland’s Civil War, there’s a punchline. It’s a decent one, cold and mean, the finishing touch on a foundation of nihilism. But the half-hearted smirk it earns is only a cover—you’ll still be trying to puzzle through the film’s aimless cynicism. As you ride shotgun on Garland’s road trip through a ravaged U.S., you’ll ask plenty of questions. What possible issue could’ve aligned California and Texas against the rest of the country? Did they really just say “the Antifa massacre?” Sorry, so there’s just no social media in this world? What exactly is everyone fighting over, anyway? In Civil War, the answers don’t matter. The only question it cares about is “So what?” and the only response it’s interested in is silence.

Civil War, written and directed by Garland, turns war and war journalism into disconnected abstractions. His points—about the chaos of combat, the evaporation of ethics, the futile contradictions of ogling all this as you attempt to show it to the uncaring masses—are more easily made when his subjects have no relationship to anything beyond what’s immediately in front of them. Institutions don’t exist, nor do politics. The world and its inhabitants have been sanded down, now seamlessly flat and smoothly practical. Soldiers have no orders; photographers have no outlets. They shoot out of habit.

Habit is the only thing moving anyone forward, whether they’re fighters or observers. Weathered war journalists Lee (Kirsten Dunst) and Joel (Wagner Moura) feel pulled towards D.C., where they hope to interview the vaguely dictatorial President (Nick Offerman, speaking in Trumpish hyperbole) before he’s executed by the combatants closing in on him. The President is the only target left worth killing, and—because this movie’s conflict exists in an ideological vacuum—his death is the only story that remains.

Lee and Joel drive to the Capitol from New York, accompanied by naïve wannabe photographer Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) and old-timer writer Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson). The party is defined in stereotypical broad strokes that an editor would never let go to print. Sallow and stationary, Lee is a numb wax figure with a press pass. Horny for war, Joel is a self-medicating adrenaline addict. Sammy dispenses tired wisdom. Jessie has a lot of heart, but somehow didn’t expect the horrors of war despite being an aspiring photojournalist who’s ostensibly been online since birth. Embedded in this unreality, they artfully document atrocities for an audience that doesn’t exist.

This mission unfolds through a series of predictable pit stop vignettes, all so shallow and anonymous that it’s like watching an impressively shot episode of The Last of Us. A group tools around the country’s backroads to garish needledrops, not knowing what kind of post-apocalyptic people wait past the crest of each new hill. Some have fully buried their heads in the sand. Most try to bury each other. But there’s nothing as sweeping and concrete as a zombie-led social collapse to unite their experience, so each run-in with heartland rooftop snipers, militarized roadblocks and random fires is met with a “sure, I guess” shrug.

Sometimes those with guns respect the press, protecting and directing them. Sometimes they’re threats, who’ll pop ‘em for no reason. Sometimes they couldn’t give two shits. Garland’s tense direction clearly means to add this unpredictability to the jittery atmosphere, pushing the juxtaposition of familiar settings and unfamiliar fears. But the flimsy writing has the opposite effect: We’re left unmoored in a place we don’t recognize. Violent sensory provocations abound (including the film’s most striking image of a lye-coated mass grave), but nothing feels grown from the country in conflict. Even the movie’s “where are you really from” racism—highlighted in Jesse Plemons’ single scene—feels less like a product of Civil War’s America, and more a product of mainstream filmmaking, where non-white characters all have an expiration date in service of white characters’ growth.

As they approach their destination, Lee’s battle-hardened surface slowly cracks while Jessie’s solidifies. Their characters swap stoicism for panic and vice-versa, with Dunst’s dead-eyed stare and Spaeny’s burgeoning bravery being the most convincing parts of Civil War. Both stars give captivating performances, though Jessie’s evolution is well-motivated as a natural response to trauma and Lee’s intermittent flashbacks make us wonder why this time is so different. Supporting them, Henderson and the bit players their caravan encounters get a few funny lines (though nobody’s as menacing or charming as they need to be), while Moura gets stuck with a hollow character representative of the movie at large. 

Joel might as well be wearing a sign that reads “Journalistic Impotence” instead of Kevlar, which becomes almost funny during Civil War’s extended skirmishes. Fighters lay into each other—shootouts devolving into executions—while Jessie and Lee take pictures. Their photos break up the intensely choreographed action scenes, each shutter snap cutting to a sequence-interrupting still. As carnage is inflicted and recorded, Joel is just…around, a warzone tourist.

Because Garland holds himself at such a distance from his subjects, more excited about themes than the ideas linking them to the situations and players enacting them, he too feels like a warzone tourist. You could argue that the pervasive indifference and aesthetic lack of depth (cinematographer Rob Hardy finds his flashiest moments in shallow focus shots of the journalists’ faces) reflect the paradoxes of war and the myopic conundrum of participating in it—even as an “objective” reporter. But objectivity is a myth; even Civil War’s jaded journalists necessarily have a point of view. Even people going through the motions do it for a reason. But here, all that matters is the simple shock of stateside war crimes and the all-consuming nature of normalized violence.

Earlier this year, Never Look Away documented the life of pioneering cameraperson Margaret Moth. She embodied some of qualities stereotyped in Civil War’s journalists: A thrillseeker with a self-destructive streak getting off on danger. She was also driven by the pursuit of justice, by the desire to show people what was happening outside their borders—sometimes in their name. To broadcast IDF soldiers air striking civilians on CNN. She did, and she changed things. But this outcome is a relic. We cover wars just fine ourselves now. You can’t go online without being confronted by an onslaught of evil actions that, for so long, took death-defying journalists to expose. The only problem is that with that ubiquity comes callousness. No amount of damning footage will make our president stop supplying Israel with weapons. No photo—raw, red-handed, ripping your heart out—will be evidence enough for change. It’s infuriating, and if you give a damn, you’ve been burned out for a long time. A fresh take on how our hyper-connected world observes catastrophe would rightly pick at this scab. But Alex Garland approaches this modern hopelessness with impersonal detachment, dreaming up an empty war filmed for no one.

Director: Alex Garland
Writer: Alex Garland
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, Cailee Spaeny, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Sonoya Mizuno, Nick Offerman
Release Date: April 12, 2024

Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.

For all the latest movie news, reviews, lists and features, follow @PasteMovies.

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