Review: CIVIL WAR Is False Advertising With A Confusing Message

Civil War film poster
Image via A24

The trailers for Civil War make it out to be a tale from an alternate future showing how a civil war has torn the United States of America as seen through the eyes of a team of journalists. But that isn’t the film that you get. What film do you end up getting? Let me tell you.

Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst) is a highly respected and decorated photojournalist in the midst of covering the Second American Civil War. She is partnered with Joel (Wagner Moura), a reporter who wants to go to Washington, D.C. to interview the President (Nick Offerman) before the capitol falls to rebel forces. They are joined on their trek by Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), a grizzled veteran report from “what’s left of the New York Times) who wants a ride to Charlottesville, Virginia, where the rebel forces are gathering for their final assault on D.C. Also hitching a ride is Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), a young photojournalist that idolizes Lee and wants to learn all she can from her.  The quartet sets of on a journey to their destination through a war-torn Pennsylvania and West Virginia, finding danger and peril along the way.

What we essentially get is reporter at war story. It has all the tropes of these kinds of stories have. Is there a scene where all the journalists gather at a bar to trade war stories? Of course there is. Is there a scene where the novice photojournalist has to be saved when she gets too close to the action? Absolutely. Does the main character have a crisis of conviction, worrying if what she is doing is really making a difference? Yes, at least twice. Is there a scene where the lead is haunted by the images she captured in the past? Yes, and it takes place while she is in a bathtub! Bonus pathos points!

This is not a bad thing per se, if it has a good hook attached to it. And having this type of story attached to a future American Civil War is a good hook. But not the way it is executed here.

Writer and Director Alex Garland throws us immediately into this new reality, like a person trying to teach a baby to swim would throw it into a pool. As a result, we have no idea what caused the Civil War, what the sides are, what the stakes are, or anything like that. Clues are revealed in dribs and drabs. For instance, we find out that the President set himself up for a third term and used airstrikes on his own people. This tells us that he is dictatorial bad guy. But what did he do to cause most of the U.S. take arms against him. Garland never tells us.

He never tells us who the rebels are. Only California, Texas and “the Florida Alliance are mentioned as seceding areas. Who else? An alternate film poster shows the Pacific Northwest has also seceded. It shows that the “Florida Alliance” includes Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia as well as Florida. Everything else is “loyalist states.” This is a poster a lot of viewers might not have seen and raises more questions than it answers, like, why is Oklahoma with Florida and not Texas and how did California join forces with Texas when there are two loyalist states separating them.

There could be answers to these questions, but Garland was sloppy in his worldbuilding. He wants things to happen because he wants things to happen. Who cares if audiences wonder how the rebels are so well armed. There is no need to explain it, he just needs them to be for the final assault on the White House. Are those soldiers burying people in a mass grave with the government, with the rebels or just a paramilitary group that operates out of West Virginia? We never find out. We just know that they are evil and a threat to our heroes. Why does one area have the residents being forced to take the law into their own hands yet several miles away there is a town that looks untouched by the conflict? No need to go into detail to explain it. It’s just there for some cool scenes.

This lack of definition takes away from the film as a whole. You are left trying to figure out what exactly Garland is trying to say with his film. The closest message I could figure out is all war is bad. But Garland could have been a whole lot clearer making his point.

Because, as it stands, there are a whole lot of messages that could be taken from the film. Setting up a President that has installed himself as president for life and uses his power to strike out as his enemies could be a cautionary tale about what might happen if Trump wins the election. However, the corrupt system being fought against by local militias lends itself to the gun lobby’s common argument that they need their guns in case a tyrant takes over and they need to fight for their freedom.

With more of an explanation of what was going on, and the narrative coming from one defined viewpoint, Civil War would have been a far better film. There is a lot to like about the film. The acting is superb, especially Kirsten Dunst as Lee. She plays the world-weary Lee with a sense of realism and inner turmoil that raises the character above simply being a cliche. She sells the conflict in her character taking Jessie under her wing very well. She sees talent in the younger woman but wants to guide Jessie away from the pitfalls that she experienced in her career. The sad realization that some of those pitfalls cannot be avoided adds pathos to the role. It’s a bravura performance. If the film was better, I’d say it would be Oscar worthy,

The battle scenes are also a high point of the film, full of action and dread.

On the other hand, the character of Sammy, while well-acted by Henderson, is a bit superfluous. You get the feeling that Garland wrote himself into a corner in the second act of the film and created Sammy so there was another character to get the other characters out of that jam. Other than that, he is used as a sounding board for Lee and little of anything else. More than one scene has him sitting in the car, forgotten, as the other characters are drawn into the action.

Civil War could have been better if Garland spent a little more time developing the Civil War aspect of this world he was building. Since he didn’t, all we have is a confusing mess that recycles tropes from better films you have seen before.

Civil War Kirsten Dunst
Image via A24.
Avatar für Bill Gatevackes
About Bill Gatevackes 2035 Articles
William is cursed with the shared love of comic books and of films. Luckily, this is a great time for him to be alive. His writing has been featured on Broken Frontier.com, PopMatters.com and in Comics Foundry magazine.
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