Civil War Just Might Be Alex Garland’s Best Movie Yet

Photo courtesy of A24

I’m a huge fan of Alex Garland. I’ve liked every movie he’s directed, including his divisive 2022 effort Men, so it should come as no surprise that Civil War was near the top of my most-anticipated list coming into 2024. I couldn’t wait to see how this film would tackle the increasingly worrisome division so evident in our country today, and after finally getting a chance to see it, I’m happy to report that it just might be Garland’s best movie to date.

Civil War was written and directed by Alex Garland, and it stars Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, Cailee Spaeny, and Stephen McKinley Henderson. In the film, multiple states have seceded from the union, and the entire USA is embroiled in a civil war even more dangerous than the one we know from the history books. It’s just about the definition of a dystopian future, but in the midst of all this chaos and destruction, four intrepid journalists–three industry veterans and a young twenty-something who wants to be a war photographer–travel across the country together and document the conflict.

As you might be able to guess from that admittedly vague synopsis, Civil War isn’t really about the plot. Rather, it’s about the characters and their journey, so it stands or falls largely (but not entirely) on the strength of those characters. And thankfully, they’re fantastic. The writing and acting are amazing across the board, but I have to give special mention to one performer in particular: Kirsten Dunst.

She plays Lee, a veteran war photographer, and whenever she’s on screen, you can see just how much of a toll this character’s job has taken on her. She looks exhausted and beaten down the entire time, and even though she does lighten up a bit every now and then, her underlying weariness never goes away entirely.

Three journalists in the White House
Photo courtesy of A24

It’s a real powerhouse of a performance, and along with the rest of this stellar cast, Dunst grounds the film in a sense of genuine humanity. Everybody in Civil War makes you believe that these are real people going through an unspeakable experience, so you can’t help but become attached to them and invested in their story.

But as I said before, this movie doesn’t get by on its characters alone. Like any good war film, it also has to depict the horrors of armed conflict in a convincing and affecting way, and unsurprisingly, Civil War knocks it out of the park on that front as well.

Right from the get-go, the movie tells us in no uncertain terms that this war has had absolutely devastating consequences for everyone it’s touched. In fact, as the main characters travel the country, this almost feels more like a post-apocalyptic story than a war film. For instance, there’s a scene where the journalists come across a stretch of road littered with abandoned cars, and at one point, we learn that American money has become so worthless that $300 is barely enough to buy a sandwich.

Moments like that make for a chilling commentary on the true nature of war, and for my money, they’re more than enough to hammer the movie’s point home. But apparently, they’re not enough for Alex Garland. He also puts his main characters in the middle of multiple firefights, and when those guns start blazing, Civil War worms its way under your skin like few films I’ve ever seen.

See, unlike a more typical action movie, this one doesn’t make war seem fun or cool. Instead, it shows us just how terrifying and dangerous an active warzone truly is, and the blatant disregard for human life these combatants display is genuinely sickening. Seriously, Civil War is about as far as you can get from, say, the Expendables franchise, so if you ever thought there was anything appealing about war, this film will make you rethink that idea.

A car driving through burning woods
Photo courtesy of A24

All that being said, Civil War isn’t exactly about war, per se. Rather, this film is primarily a warning, and it uses the horrors of war to make its point crystal clear. It’s a commentary on the divided state of our country today, and it’s telling us that if we don’t get our act together and overcome those deep divisions, we’ll risk ending up in a world not too different from the one Alex Garland has created.

That’s a chilling but important message that both sides of our political and cultural divide would do well to heed, and somewhat surprisingly, the movie conveys its message in a way both sides can appreciate. It’s no secret that Hollywood leans pretty heavily to the left, but this film is pretty apolitical.

It never tells us what the different sides actually stand for, and the main rebel faction is an alliance between Texas and California. So if you’re looking for a movie that will reinforce your own beliefs and bash the “other side,” you won’t find it here. Instead, Civil War is a plea for everybody–liberals, conservatives, and everybody in between–to come to their senses and stop treating people with different beliefs like the devil himself.

In case you couldn’t tell, I had an amazing time watching Civil War. This film is a moving exploration of the true nature of war and the dangers of our current political and social divisions, and it’s grounded by great characters brought to life by great performances. It’s one of the best movies of the year so far, and even though we’re only in April, I’m pretty confident that it’ll still be in my top ten come December.

Civil War is playing in theaters right now.

Written by JP Nunez

JP Nunez is a lifelong movie fan, and his favorite genres are horror, superheroes, and giant monsters.

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