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Civil War Movie Review

A highly provocative premise is ultimately wasted on shallow storylines and characters.

By Robert CainPublished about a month ago 3 min read

In the decades following the bloodiest conflict in American history, many have wondered what a hypothetical second civil war may bring to the nation. Alternative history has offered up many scenarios with full cinematic releases being few and far between. Releasing in a major election year no less, the provocative premise of Civil War from Alex Garland is ultimately wasted on a well-made film with shallow storylines and characters.

Based on the east coast, Civil War uses a modern context to paint America tearing itself apart. Between a band of secessionists and a President (Nick Offerman) desperately clinging on to a third-term in office, the details are left unanswered. We follow a team of journalists who get as close to the action as possible to document the major events. Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst), Joel (Wagner Moura) and Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) are joined by the inexperienced Jessie Cullen (Cailee Spaeny) on the road to Washington, taking many risks along the way. Right from the start, Civil War is dealing with a very contentious subject and while the film is paced well, the context and meaning is sorely lacking. On occasion the film hints at controversial politics like antifa, xenophobia and government propaganda which feels incredibly restrained, as if the film is actively avoiding references to the opposing factions. There is also some commentary on the nature of war photography and the way reporters steel themselves against traumatic events to continue their work, but ultimately the title is more interested in showing what a second civil war might look like rather than delving deeper. Basic observation is prioritised over outright confrontation. The ending is especially abrupt and not very inventive, refusing to reveal anything about how or why the central conflict took place. Aside from the battles and ensuing fatalities, Civil War fails to leave much impact.

The acting on display is perfectly competent but the detached nature of the journalists has a detrimental effect on the experience. Kirsten Dunst plays a more hardened role, often keeping her emotions contained as the intensity rises. There are hints of a bond forming between her and Jessie, but outside of a couple of discussions, their relationship never has any time to build, making the final outcome rather weightless. Joel has some moments of intense grief which are handled well and Sammy is the oldest and most experienced of the group, but he goes by underused for the most part. The film needed more moments where the character’s discuss what they’ve been through, why they chose to be war reporters and mental toll of their professions. The cast delivers far more during the desperate encounters; one scene with a pair of renegade soldiers is really effective, the quiet location contrasting with the sudden onset of violence. You can feel the sense of panic growing in the characters and wonder how they will get out of the situation. The side performers play the two warring factions to a good standard, especially when casualties start to mount.

There’s no doubt that Civil War makes the most of its lower $50 million budget. America may be at war, but the film often takes place in more picturesque countryside settings. It leans into a more reflective tone rather than going for constant action which does create some precise shots and serene beauty. The team of journalists driving through a burning forest in the second act is very atmospheric. When we do enter combat, it feels rugged and brutal with some nasty blood effects; The sound design is unquestionably the best component, especially when it comes to firearms. Every weapon feels punchy and brutal, heightening the sense of danger and how easily they can take a life. The climax in Washington D.C really amps up the intensity with powerful armoured vehicles duking it out. On this level, the film works brilliantly to immerse the audience in frontline warfare. The soundtrack is a bit of a mixed bag; the ambient pieces are implemented to a high standard, but some of the regular tracks feel out of place, often being inserted after a hard-hitting sequence.

Civil War is well produced and delivers an occasional dose of razor-sharp tension. However, when you look beyond the strong filmmaking on display, we’re left with a hollow film that has so little to say about America, modern warfare and those caught up in its brutality. It’s very disappointing when compared with both Garland’s previous work and the wider A24 library.

Rating: 2.5/5 Stars (Mediocre)


About the Creator

Robert Cain

I'm a well-travelled blogger and writer from the UK who is looking to spread his blogs and freelance writings further afield. You can find more of my work at

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  • KIMabout a month ago

    I rated it higher, but I see your point. It kind of reminds me of Nightcrawler.

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