Civil War (2024)

Movie Info

Movie Info

Alex Garland
Run Time
1 hour and 49 minutes

VP Content Ratings

Sex & Nudity
Star Rating
★★★★★5 out of 5

Relevant Quotes

For they eat the bread of wickedness, and drink the wine of violence.

Proverbs 4:17 (KJV)
For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?

Mark 8:36 (KJV)
Our 4 journalist approaching a firefight. (c)A24

Many angry citizens, who are upset over seemingly intractable political disputes, have talked about civil war breaking out in our nation, would do well to watch writer/director Alex Garland’s Civil War. It is a cautionary film, told through the eyes of four journalists, and it is not an uplifting story. One of its lessons is expressed in that adage, “Be careful of what you pray for, for you just might get it.”

Three generations are represented in the characters of: Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), old enough to have retired but still going for the big story, mentor to: Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst), a middle-aged highly successful photojournalist; and Joel (Wagner Moura), about Lee’s age and also very successful. Joining them is Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), a youthful wannabe journalist who idolizes Lee. The latter two meet during a riot when police are firing into demonstrators and Lee drags Jessie to cover, insisting that she don Lee’s Press flight jacket, so she won’t be mistaken as a rioter. A suicide bomber sets off an explosion that devastates the area, but because of Lee’s action, the two women hiding behind a car are unscathed.

The United States is split when Texas and California both secede in reaction to the US President’s usurpation of power. (The film opens with the President (Nick Offerman) practicing a speech he is about to give. The film does not delve into the details of ideology of either side, merely informing us that the President is somehow in his third term as President and that the two Western states have joined military forces to end his unconstitutional reign. The President claims that his forces are winning great victories, but we will soon see that this is far from the truth.

After aiding Jessie, Lee joins her two journalist friends at a hotel where she and Joel make plans to travel to Washington DC to interview the President before the rebel forces take the city. Joel hopes to catch on his recorder a memorable quotation from the politician. Sammy asks to join them as far as the frontlines at Charlottesville. Jesse appears and convinces Joel and Sammy to join their party, much to Lee’s annoyance.

This being a road trip film, each of the following sequences is labeled according to how close the location is to D.C. At a rural gas station guarded by armed men, Joel negotiates for the purchase of fuel (he has to use Canadian dollars) while Jesse leaves the party to investigate the car wash where two men accused of looting are hung from the wrack while being tortured. One of the armed guards is about to assault Jesse when Lee appears, defusing the situation by getting the man to pose with the victims for a photo. Afterward Jesse is upset that in her fear she forgot to take any photos herself.

The next day the group comes across militia men taking aim at a building where loyalist snipers are pinning them down. This time Jesse does take some memorable shots of the camouflaged soldiers. She also coolly takes pictures while the militiamen execute captured loyalist soldiers.

In West Virginia they spend the night in a college sports stadium turned into a refugee camp. We have seen hundreds of such sights of people gathered around cooking fires, but these have been in camps set up in eastern Europe, Africa or the Middle East, not in the United States of America!

The following day the travelers come upon a village without any damage, every thing seeming normal. The two women enter a clothing boutique and try on dresses. Lee asks the young clerk, “You are aware there’s a really huge civil war going on everywhere?” and the young shopkeeper answers, ”We usually try to stay out of it. With everything that’s been going on, it seems like it’s for the best.” Outside, the group looks up to see the armed guards on a rooftop who enforce their neutrality.

There are other encounters, during which Jessie, inspired by Lee, increases her skill at picture taking amidst combat. A succession of quick still shots shows Lee taking snapshots of wounded and dying soldiers, the montage making me think of vultures surrounding a dying animal. Immersed in brutal combat, the journalists put aside any human feelings toward the victims. They are consumed by the desire to capture the memorable shot, this passion overcoming the desire to come to the aid of the victim. At one point Jesse asks Lee if she were dying, would Lee take her picture, to which her mentor says Maybe. One might well think of Jesus’ words in Mark 8:36 at this point.

Possibly the film’s most harrowing sequence is when Jesse and an Asian journalist who has joined them are held at gunpoint by a militiaman engaged in tossing dead civilians into a mass grave. Asked by the thug who they are, Jesse replies “Americans,” to which their interrogator demands, “What kind of Americans?” He cold-bloodedly shoots Jesse’s companion when he answers that he is from “Hong Kong.” Jesse barely escapes death by means I will leave you to discover, but she lands in the pit filled with hundreds of dead bodies. The overhead shot of her crawling over them in her climb out of the pit is as harrowing as it is memorable. It might remind one of the mss killings in Cambodia, Rwanda, or Auschwitz. This, the filmmakers tell us, is the result of a people who dehumanize one another, casting aside any restraint of civilized behavior. Ys, it can happen in America.

We see this lack of restraint when Lee, Jessie and Joel finally arrive with the rebel forces assaulting the White House. All limitations or sense of decency are cast aside, a couple of instances being when a White House limousine and escort vans try to drive through the rebel lines. The gunfire stops the limousine and when a woman, presumably the First Lady, climbs out of the back seat, she is gunned down without any command to surrender. Later, in the familiar-looking Press Room, the female Press Secretary tries to negotiate with the invaders but manages to get just a few words out before she is gunned down with no warning.

During all the mayhem, Jessie, now fully engaged in capturing the events with her Nikon, takes many risks to obtain her shots, whereas her mentor is briefly incapacitated by post-traumatic stress disorder. Lee comes out of it when she sees Jessie in dire danger. What she does signifies to us that she has regained her soul, one of the rare uplifting scenes in this grim movie. There follows a brutal scene in which Joel gets his quote from the cornered President, the latter’s power-grab brought to an end. But the last shots of soldiers and President and reporter leave us wondering at what cost to the soul of the nation is all the violence?

With its purposeful lack of detailing the ideologies of either side, we can see that Civil War is not really about war so much as the effect of war’s violence upon the participants. We are reminded that ordinary citizens, when they dehumanize one another, are capable of terrible acts of cruelty. It is not just Russian, or Nazi, or Hamas combatants who torture and execute their opponents without hesitation. And those who report on the war can be numbed by the repetitive violence, especially when they are full of ambition to capture a memorable moment. At one point Jessie says to the others, “I’ve never been so scared in my entire life. And I’ve never felt more alive.” That adrenaline rush can be, and in Lee’s case is, addictive, now shared by the young journalist.

Although the film probably will appeal to thriller fans, I hope the intent of the filmmakers will not be lost. This is a film that asks both sides of the current political debates to stop and think about how they fight each other—will they use words that dehumanize the other, a practice which can unleash passions that allow us to do terrible things to one another? Of all the cautionary films that I have seen, this is the one that is the most important for the moment for our embattled republic. Do not ignore it, but instead, gather a group and discuss it as soon as possible after seeing it.

This review will be in the May issue of VP along with a set of questions for reflection and/or discussion. If you have found reviews on this site helpful, please consider purchasing a subscription or individual issue in The Store.

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4 Replies to “Civil War (2024)”

  1. Because our governments do not care, our schools do not teach all our children morals, ethics, philosophy, and history of world religions (perfectly legal), yet we act surprised about increasing violence and endless wars.

    The only way to sustainable peace is voluntary love and forgiveness with the integrity of seeing everyone as equal.

  2. Can we change our local and state education systems? Can we change our government from exclusive winner-take-all unilateral executives to more inclusive executive committees like the Swiss, so multiple views, esp. women, minorities, and disabled, can almost always share a seat, voice, and vote in executive decisions? Can we replace exclusive majority rules with more inclusive super-majorities, consensus minus one, or true consensus equality, which Quakers have done for hundreds of years? Would our church elders share power by elevating all equally and patiently listening to find spiritual unity and sustainable mutual peace? If our churches lead by example of using consensus equality, can we eventually improve our divisive and exclusive governments? What future do we want?

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