‘Civil War’ SXSW 2024 Review: Alex Garland Delivers One of the Best War Movies Ever Made

There’s already an air of trepidation surrounding Alex Garland’s battleground thriller Civil War. Should U.S. audiences even take the risk of seeing the mirror of their own seemingly irreconcilable differences reflected back at them on the big screen? After witnessing Garland’s latest in towering IMAX at this year’s SXSW, the answer to that question is a resounding yes. Garland’s new epic doesn’t point the finger at anyone in particular, resulting in a pulse-pounding adrenaline ride across a ravaged America.

Civil War opens with some behind-the-scenes prep before an authoritarian three-term President (Nick Offerman) delivers a rousing speech. It’s quickly established that the last gasps of the war are playing out, as the Western Forces made up of Texas and California are closing in on Washington, D.C. for a final skirmish. Lee (Kirsten Dunst), a seasoned photojournalist, her combative colleague Joel (Wagner Moura), and Sammy (Stephen Henderson), an aging journalist from a rival publication, are readying themselves for a dangerous trek into the belly of the beast to try to interview the President.

It’s the only story left to tell, and they are ready to risk their lives after many journalists have already been eradicated. A young, brash photographer named Sammy (Cailee Spaeny) hitches a ride with them at the last minute to the dismay of Lee who doesn’t want blood on her hands. What follows is a harrowing road trip movie across the East Coast that chronicles the lingering destruction of the country and the senseless confusion of the people still fighting on the ground.

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Smartly, Garland’s script (written shortly after the attack on the Capitol) chooses not to politicize the events transpiring. Through an objective lens, the war is seen through the eyes of war correspondents there to capture the images they see in front of them. A lingering monologue from Lee perfectly establishes her purpose. For years, she documented the horrors abroad to serve as a reminder so that kind of carnage would never happen on American soil. Obviously, we didn’t listen, and the chickens came home to roost.

Lee’s suppressed PTSD starts to bubble up to the surface, juxtaposed against Sammy’s wide-eyed terror that quickly turns into pure exhilaration. Sammy and Joel become kindred spirits who realize their addiction to the action is secretly more important to them than any journalistic integrity or responsibility. It’s not just about getting the perfect shot, it’s the thrill of the chase when everything has gone totally F.U.B.A.R.

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Throughout the quick, deafening bursts of battle, each picture that Sammy snaps appears on screen, giving a momentary reprieve from the mayhem. Stylistically, the images present a new way to see the drama and it’s used perfectly in the final moments of the fiery, siege-driven third act. There are also quieter moments to offset the incredibly intense battle scenes, showing a refugee camp where the community comes together and a small town untouched by the war that feels like something out of The Twilight Zone. The huge difference between the horrors of the war and the sudden shift to downtime is expertly paced, depicting the highs and lows of being an embedded journalist who’s constantly on the move.

As with most great war movies, Civil War is at its scariest when the violence seems completely random and pointless. One ironic sequence between a lone sniper and two opposing gunmen is set against the decidedly American backdrop of a Christmas installation. Either side doesn’t even know who’s on the other end of the scope staring back at them. They’re trying to kill each other. But they don’t know why they’re fighting. Lee and her team are simply caught in the crosshairs. The most senseless, gut-wrenching scene is set in the middle of nowhere and features a cameo from Dunst’s real-life husband. The question “Where are you from?” has never sounded so menacing.

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In some ways, Civil War is a darkly serious version of a fast-paced, heroic action film that would normally have Gerard Butler at the top of the call sheet. It also has echoes of Haskell Wexler’s seminal 1969 docudrama, Medium Cool. At its core, Garland has constructed a film that largely functions as a tribute to embedded war journalists. This is not an outright political film that chooses sides or decrees any sort of strong condemnation of the actual events that this nation has lived through over the last half-decade.

The graphic violence of gunshot wounds and exploding body parts are also given an almost operatic quality thanks to some incredibly well-placed needle drops that help break the tension with a Kubrickian sense of humor. Instead of Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortune Son” booming in the speakers, Civil War uses De La Soul’s “Say No Go” to add a party vibe to the war zone. In the same way Alfonso Cuarón used John Lennon’s “Bring On The Lucie (Freda Peeple)” at the end of Children of Men, Garland somehow turns “Dream Baby Dream” by No Wave legend Suicide into a protest song.

Those debating whether to take the plunge and take a chance on A24’s most ambitious offering to date shouldn’t stray. Oddly, Civil War operates on a more therapeutic frequency. Where the real-world events that inspired the film can be triggering, Garland’s deft hand uses stark images of an America on the brink to bring about a strange level of catharsis. That’s no easy feat.

Civil War is set to release on April 12 in theaters and IMAX.

  • Civil War


Shockingly, Alex Garland’s polarizing new film offers up a surprising level of catharsis hidden inside a riveting, action heavy war movie.



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