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The Terrifying Collapse of American Democracy

The Terrifying Collapse of American Democracy

Civil War depicts a terrifying scenario wherein the United States fractures into a second bloody armed conflict. Filmmaker Alex Garland’s near-future dystopian collapse of democratic ideals turns neighbors into brutal enemies with vicious realism. The premise of an authoritarian president’s refusal to leave office and allowing a peaceful transition of power is all too realistic given current affairs. The breakdown of social order that follows is a cinematic gut punch.

Lee (Kirsten Dunst), a renowned war photographer, and Joel (Wagner Moura), her Reuters news partner, arrive to riots in the streets of New York City. They have traveled the country documenting the rebellion against the President’s (Nick Offerman) third term. The war seems to have taken a decisive turn with soldiers from the Western Front (WF), an alliance between California and Texas, marching towards Washington D.C.

The tough and battle-hardened Lee grabs a young photographer who’s getting too close to the demonstrations, Jessie (Cailee Spaeny). The younger woman is startled and awed to be in the presence of such a journalistic legend, but her starstruck countenance changes as they are both forced to take cover. Lee admonishes the eager upstart for being so careless, wondering why she isn’t wearing armor or a press badge and vest. She’s as good as dead with such a cavalier approach.

Civil War

Civil War


Release Date
April 26, 2024


  • Unrest is visceral and axiety-inducing
  • Bonds formed between characters are well-executed
  • Both realistic and heightened

  • Logistical inconsistencies take away from world-building
  • Not all characters fleshed out well

Take Cover

A weary Lee trudges up a dozen flights of stairs to her hotel room as taking the elevator is a dangerous gambit with intermittent power. Thankfully, the Wi-Fi works. Lee joins the hard-drinking and smoking Joel at a table with their colleagues. The revered Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), gray and clutching his cane, wonders what the pair are really up to. Lee’s surprised to see that Jessie has ingratiated herself into the group. She’s further stunned to find both Jessie and Sammy sitting in their SUV the following morning because Joel spilled the beans on their secret mission in a drunken stupor.

Civil War‘s visual approach is bolstered by journalist footage. Lee, Joel, and the gang embark on a harrowing odyssey fraught with violent encounters. While they are supposed to be protected under international law, there to observe and report without becoming targets themselves, they quickly learn that the supposed rules of war have become loose. Some combatants choose to respect journalistic freedoms, while others mark them as targets. The group must navigate a circuitous route where those who mean harm aren’t easily discernible. This is the film’s first alarming tenet. How can you distinguish between friend and foe in a firefight?

Civil War is primarily seen from two perspectives. Lee is furious that Joel allowed Jessie and Sammy to tag along. Sammy’s vaunted career means nothing on the front lines — he’s too old and frail to run — and Jessie’s an inexperienced novice whose ambitions put everyone at risk. This isn’t a game that rewards the earnest and foolish. Jessie is keenly aware of Lee’s concerns. She understands Lee’s position, but ardently impresses a genuine respect and desire to be mentored. Everyone has to start from somewhere.


Why Alex Garland’s Civil War Is Bound to Feel All Too Real

Alex Garland’s Civil War is coming this April, is a tale of an America heavily divided, and feels oddly similar to things we’ve seen before.

A Found Family Forms

Civil War

The characters develop a camaraderie that juxtaposes the country’s descent into anarchy. They come together as a family of sorts, seeking a greater purpose under dire circumstances. Lee can’t help but see herself in Jessie, so the photographers become a mirror of each other’s past and future, where innocence is inevitably lost as they’re thrust together into the fire. Garland (Ex Machina, Annihilation) establishes an emotional core before swinging a shattering sledgehammer.

Civil War unnerves with grippingly realistic action scenes — imagine the horrors witnessed in Gaza and Ukraine on your doorstep. Garland uses big-budget production values to shred the suburbs with bullets while scenes of tracers lighting up the night sky as helicopters rain missiles from above will send shivers down your spine. Anxiety reaches a fever pitch when murder becomes a personal sport. Garland graphically illustrates unbridled killers running amok. There are no safeguards from those who’ve lost the value of human life. Shocking is an understatement.

The new American flag in Alex Garlands Civil War

Garland never gets granular with his exposition. The overarching plot of a president turned dictator is believable given recent historical events (insert the January 6th insurrection here). But the idea of a union between California and Texas makes zero sense outside this context. The details aren’t necessary for Garland’s purpose. He needed to create a powerful adversary capable of internally fighting an entrenched federal government. What’s more disturbing are the various reactions to the war from other parts of the country. Ignorance is bliss becomes a disturbing theme that reflects a common response to tragedy: tune out the violence and pretend it’s not happening.

Unbridled Killers

Civil War

Unfortunately, the film does suffer from glaring logistical issues. The journalists appear in each setting with little difficulty. They also aren’t consistent in their safety measures. Lee chides Jessie for not wearing a helmet in the first act, but they don’t abide by that rule as the plot thickens. The reason is simple. Garland wants to show his characters’ unobstructed faces in a fierce climax. You’ll never see Richard Engel, perhaps America’s best-known war correspondent, without significant body armor under combat duress. There’s also a disappointing “magical negro” component to Sammy’s place in the story that’s obvious from a mile away.


27 Best War Movies on Netflix to Watch Right Now

From classic films like Black Hawk Down to recent Netflix originals like All Quiet on the Western Front, these are the best war movies on Netflix.

Civil War deserves to be lauded as unflinching and pertinent. Red versus blue has become a dividing line with disastrous potential. Militant secessionists stoke enmity in an election year fraught with possible peril. American democracy faces a significant stress test. Civil War, a must-see in IMAX, is a cautionary tale that must never become prophetic. The message delivered is clear and frightening.

Civil War is a production of DNA Films and IPR.VC. It will be released theatrically on April 12th from A24. You can watch the trailer below:

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