‘Civil War’ Review — Alex Garland’s Dystopian Vision Is His Best Film Yet

Estimated read time 7 min read

The Big Picture

  • Alex Garland’s
    Civil War
    explores the perils of combat journalism amidst a civil war.
  • The film emphasizes the importance of journalism and societal interaction with information.
  • Civil War
    offers a visually stunning, chaotic dystopian narrative with outstanding performances.

Alex Garland’s Civil War feels stressfully pertinent and ominously ambiguous in its stances about America’s past, present, and future. It’s not the militaristic action-thriller A24’s marketing trailers are selling. Garland’s screenplay dutifully explores the rushes and trappings of combat journalism set to our vulnerable nation’s downfall, which stays more in the background. Not only that, but Garland is playing with fire — releasing Civil War within months of 2024’s election is a choice that brings insurmountable real-world implications. It’s hard to tell whether the film means to be a violent warning or a bleak prediction (fathomably both). Still, at the end of it all, as complicated and combative post-screening discourse will undoubtedly become, Civil War stands attentively as Garland’s best film yet.

Civil War

The film follows events in the U.S. during a civil war. Government forces attack civilians. Journalists are shot in the Capitol.

Release Date April 12, 2024

Director Alex Garland

Main Genre Drama

Writers Alex Garland

What Is ‘Civil War’ About?

Kirsten Dunst stars as accomplished wartime photographer Lee Smith, traveling the United States with her journalist colleague Joel (​​Wagner Moura) amidst a destructive “Second American Civil War.” The American government wages war against separatist “Western Forces” led by Texas and California, with Florida’s insurrectionist ranks attempting to overthrow other territories. The president (played oh so Trumpian by Nick Offerman) is walled inside the White House as Washington D.C. makes its last stand, precisely where Lee and Joel chart their next stop. They want to be the ones who photograph and interview the disgraced dictatorial president before he’s captured or killed, so they set out on a roughly 800-mile journey with their mentor Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and aspiring mini-Lee clone Jessie (Cailee Spaeny).

Civil War is an objectively contemplative and ruinously compelling tour de force ingeniously told from the perspective of journalists. Garland’s beginning is the war’s end; Offerman’s POTUS prepares for either escape or execution. Dunst is the film’s sharpshooter, only she uses a camera to capture the ugliest war crimes and consequences instead of a sniper rifle to defeat enemies. There’s much to unpack between Joel’s appetite for chasing “action” and Lee’s existential crisis as she addresses the trauma of pictorially immortalizing the same heartbreaking repulsiveness without societal change. The best documentaries are said to impart no bias, and that’s Garland’s approach, whether you approve or object. The life of a wartime journalist becomes our burden to evaluate, an activity that will tear some viewers apart.


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Garland makes a compelling case for the importance of journalism and the greater public’s increasing inability to interact appropriately with information. Lee’s dedication to her craft is something she once hoped would save the world, but instead, her pictures are probably exploited by Fox News or CNN. Civil War echoes Trump’s rhetoric about how the press is America’s enemy, and there’s undoubtedly a Mediaphobia in Garland’s story, so it’s hard to watch mobilized Western Forces soldiers be the only ones protecting Lee and her crew in today’s age of law enforcement failings. There’s a level of “depiction is not endorsement” that murkily navigates the turmoil, obsession, and endangerment that comes with journalism as Garland isn’t holding back. What you see in Civil War is a harsh assessment, but it’s impressively engaging and consistently tension-throttled.

‘Civil War’s Chaotic Dystopia Is Visually Beautiful Yet Brutal

What’s inarguable is Garland’s technical prowess behind the camera because Civil War is jaw-droppingly beautiful despite its despicable depictions. Cinematographer Rob Hardy’s immaculate camera work shoots a bevy of styles, from chaotic dystopian battle footage with attack helicopters to indie-spirited road trip wanderlust. He remains at the top of his game. Composers Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow borrow from twangy American folk songs for acoustic guitar plucks and country-lovin’ instrumental rambles as Lee’s journalists pass by a broken country. Hardy’s precision framing as Civil War rips your guts out is almost like a magic trick, turning rebellion-sparked forest fires into scenic settings where embers flutter like fireflies or assault rifle shootouts are brightened with colored smoke and chalk. The grandiosity of what’s on-screen feels like how Chloé Zhao might capture civilization’s worst impulses, as Garland oversees deplorable inhumanity with such prestige. These little moments where Lee stops and smells the flowers while hiding from sniper bullets are everything, staging melancholy and disaster like Lars von Trier took the reins.

The performances only heighten the sense of instability and outrage that overtakes during Civil War. Dunst conveys widespread journalistic advice that’s cheeky and sincere to newcomers, and that’s never to get involved. The thanklessness and gut-punching effort that goes into becoming a renowned journalist does terrible things to people, which Civil War does not sugarcoat. Moura’s adrenaline seeker Joel is giddy with excitement as artillery shells explode in the background but inconsolably distraught after a run-in with Jesse Plemons’ pink sunglasses-wearing bigoted soldier. The swing in emotions is everything, which Moura emphatically sells, as real as Henderson’s delivery of a wise veteran who won’t quit until he’s dead, or Spaeny’s portrayal of the cutthroat rookie who doesn’t yet understand the steely resolve it takes to become her hero. Garland’s cast is everything as observers of the worst who cannot stop what they see but document so others can; left reckoning with history’s repeated follies, their impassioned reports do nothing but recycle humankind’s inability to change doomed patterns.

What does all this amount to coming from a British filmmaker? That’s the conversation Garland wants to start and in no way intends to finish.

Civil War starkly represents America’s reputation from the outside and a dissection of our nation’s dodgy relationship with journalism. It bares all, prods at festering wounds, and challenges the audience to reckon with its ideas. You might not vibe with what it all means, nor does Garland maybe even know, but where the same approach fails in Men, I’ll be thinking about Civil War for years to come. Hopefully, that’s not because life imitates art, but because of the exceptional filmmaking that enraptured me with our country’s fragile democratic status and how that looks through Lee’s camera. The life of a combat journalist is never one to envy, nor does Civil War glorify retaliation on blockbuster action-hero terms. Garland may have just delivered one of the most vicious and unrelenting watches of the year, one that I’ll keep debating and untangling both in my head and with others for a good long while.

Civil War Film Poster

Civil War


Alex Garland’s Civil War is a brutal yet beautiful look at the end of America as we know it through the eyes of journalists.

The film follows events in the U.S. during a civil war. Government forces attack civilians. Journalists are shot in the Capitol.


  • The film is nothing like the trailer, proving to be Garland’s best film yet.
  • From the score to the cinematography, the film is a vision to behold even as its often painful to do so.
  • The performances are all great across the board, heightening the sense of instability.

Civil War had its World Premiere at the 2024 SXSW Film & TV Festival. It will be released in theaters in the U.S. starting April 12. Click below for showtimes.