A Non-Political Review of Civil War

By: JJ Ledewitz  |  May 11, 2024

By JJ Ledewitz, Staff Writer

“People say satire is dead. It’s not dead; it’s alive and living in the white house.” – Robin Williams

The movie Civil War is anything but your typical dystopian film. It takes place in an alternative USA where the dictatorial president (played by the strangely cast Nick Offerman) is serving his third term as a civil war emerges between an authoritarian U.S. government with their “Loyalist states,” and various other groups, including the “Western Forces,” the “Florida Alliance,” and the “New People’s Army.” The film uniquely follows a quartet of journalists who want to photograph and interview the president before Washington D.C. collapses.

In reality, at least until the climax of the film, this is a road trip movie. The group of journalists aim to travel from New York to D.C., and in the process, they go from place to place, stop here and there, meet this person and that person, and sometimes even get into a bit of tension-filled trouble. It is from within these occasional stops that the information and background of this alternative USA becomes more obvious and important, whether it be a refugee camp showing one side’s loss or a gas station showing another side’s violence. These stops also show the current state of the country; the good, the bad, and the horrifically ugly, all from the perspective of a few journalists who are just doing what they have to do. 

Kirsten Dunst stars as the acclaimed photojournalist Lee Smith. Dunst nails the character’s reluctant acceptance of trauma and spiraling anxiety, although Lee becomes less and less interesting as the other characters begin to shine. Wagner Moura plays Joel, a Reuters journalist and Lee’s close colleague. Along with Dunst, Moura perfectly portrays everything that comes with being a journalist during a brutal civil war – not just the trauma and anxiety, but also the sacrifices and the bloodshed. I found Joel to be quite a boring character towards the beginning of the film, although after making sacrifices and coming to terms with issues he could have avoided, he became the most interesting, entertaining, and emotional character.

Along for the ride is Jessie, played by Cailee Spaeny, a young and incredibly (and sometimes dangerously) ambitious photographer. Through Jessie, the audience sees how detrimental journalism can be for a journalist, and how hard it is to not intervene in the stories they are reporting on. Also in the car is Sammy, played by Steven McKinley Henderson, a New York Times veteran journalist who doesn’t really do much except get in everyone’s way and reminisce on old times. Whereas Jessie is a young ambitious photojournalist and Lee is a middle-aged experienced photojournalist, Sammy is one step above that, and has been through way too much in his life.

Director Alex Garland does not hold back at all. Every scene that doesn’t take place in a car is brutal and gut-wrenching. The cinematography and the sound design take center stage at every possible moment. Every click of a camera is as important and impactful as a gunshot. 

Additionally, the film uses silence in such unique ways. Sometimes it’s to emphasize a character’s death, or the death of an idea, or the loss of hope, but every time, the eeriness of the silence brings back the one question that these journalists are always thinking: “Is it all worth it?”

Because of Alex Garland’s unique approach to this movie’s premise, Civil War becomes a gloriously realistic spectacle that purposely stays politically ambiguous. It definitely isn’t a film for everyone, but the many great features outweigh the few lackluster ones.