Civil War – Entertainment Film Distributors/A24

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Director: Alex Garland
Screenplay: Alex Garland
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Cailee Spaeny, Wagner Moura, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Jesse Plemons and Nick Offerman
Country: USA, UK
Running Time: 109 min
Year: 2024
BBFC Certificate: 15

I’m not sure what I think of Alex Garland’s body of work. On one hand, he’s written some of the most interesting and influential films of the past two decades (28 Days Later, Sunshine, Dredd) and when he directs, occasionally he delivers interesting concepts (Ex Machina, Annihilation). On the other hand, he’s someone who blunders the landing on many of his narratives, although his heart is usually in the right place. However, in 2022, with his third directorial effort Men (although, some might say fourth as Dredd is unofficially a Garland feature) something changed. 

I had such a viscerally negative reaction to Men upon first seeing it that it made me question what I previously enjoyed about Garland as a filmmaker. It was a film that completely baffled me in its stupidity and pretentiousness that I couldn’t believe this was the same man who wrote 28 Days Later. He fumbled the bag so hard in almost every conceivable way that I was completely shocked by the end result. I even revisited Men the other day, hoping to give it a second chance and see if maybe I was wrong on my initial viewing but my issues were even more solidified the second time around. So when I heard news that he was making another film straight after Men titled Civil War, I began bracing for another disaster. 

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Before going into Civil War, I was convinced that Garland’s head was so far up his rear end that there’s no way he was going to be able to tackle a subject like the state of America without doing something incredibly stupid or tasteless. I noticed that my new cinema had an early IMAX screening of the film, so I booked my ticket prepping for the worst and waited. The day arrives. I finish work and I head to the cinema, grab a popcorn and a Coke and sit down as trailers for Back to Black and Borderlands hurt my head. “What am I in for with Civil War?” I’m thinking to myself. Surely, it can’t be worse than Men. And then the movie begins. 

From its opening few minutes, it’s clear that Garland is making an effort to make a real film this time around, instead of some phoney arthouse disaster like Men. The shallow focus that permeates the entire feature is an interesting stylistic choice, highlighting the individuals in power of the United States and those said higher ups. There’s ear-popping sound design whenever an explosion occurs or gunshots spray across the streets of America. There’s technical elements that make Civil War an interesting film to look at on a filmmaking level. It’s just a shame that the narrative that holds these neat technical elements has nothing of note to say whatsoever.

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The film follows four journalists, Lee (Kirsten Dunst), a notorious photographer who’s claims to fame include the “legendary ANTIFA massacre” amongst other notable events in the universe of Civil War, her friends Joel (Wagner Moura) and Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), as well as Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), a young reporter who’s inspired by the work of Lee. The group goes on a road-trip to D.C. to interview the President of the United States (Nick Offerman). Along the way, they encounter shootouts, racists, townsfolk who are trying to ignore the war going on and while this sounds ripe for thematically interesting material, Garland never attempts to explore any of these in any real detail. Instead, we’re placed into the role of an observer, similar to the photographers that we’re joining on this journey. In some ways, that’s an interesting way to take this narrative, an apolitical stance, only highlighting the truth shown through their images. The universe of this film is going through the midst of a second American Civil War, with the States of the country divided, almost feeling like their own little countries. It’s something that’s established, but rarely built upon. Sometimes there’s good people, sometimes there’s bad people. Some people hate the other states. Some people don’t get involved. It’s a foundation, but that’s about it.

There are many anti-war films out there that are able to make you feel like an on-goer to horrific events but actually have the balls to say something, some form of statement against war. Civil War is happy sitting on the sidelines, condoning the most egregious of actions, but turning a blind eye to others so “the audience can decide.” In the hands of a more interesting filmmaker, maybe that could work but with Garland, it feels half-baked at best and irresponsible at worst.

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It’s a film that has surprisingly little to say, offering some genuinely solid technical elements that will make most people into the technical side of cinema happy and I had no complaints about the IMAX experience. The sound mix was fantastic, the visuals looked crisp and well composed, the performances were all mostly great. There’s a scene in the trailer highlighting Jesse Plemons as an unnamed soldier that might be one of the most harrowing scenes of the year. It’s intense, suspenseful, edge-of-your-seat stuff if you take it purely as an action film. Stephen McKinley Henderson is delightful as Sammy, the heart of the entire film. Cailee Spaeny’s Jessie is another bright spot of the cast, a character you really enjoy spending time with. There are good elements to Civil War, and I’d be lying if I said I had an awful time with the film because it’s a gigantic improvement over Garland’s last feature, it’s well-paced and has nothing wrong with it on a filmmaking level. 

It’s the sheer lack of anything profound or interesting to say that makes Civil War confusing, perplexing and frankly, stupid. Late last year, production and distribution company A24 announced that they were going to attempt making higher budget, more mass appealing films as the arthouse, low-to-mid budget fare they were putting out wasn’t profitable enough. Civil War touts the highest budget an A24 film has ever had with $50 million thrown its way. In some ways, you can absolutely see why A24 would advertise this as a grand, accessible film that will hopefully rake in the big bucks and please most audience members. It’s inoffensive, there’s solid action, big names that people into film will recognize and Garland’s name has a level of prestige to it that should get butts into seats. Does that mean the film will be a success? I don’t know. I can’t tell you if this film will actually make its money back or not, because I don’t think there’s a whole lot to really get out of it. I’m not a fan of most of the schlocky big-budget films released into cinemas nowadays and if you asked me a couple of years ago, I’d happily take an A24 Alex Garland film over those. But when it comes to Civil War, it feels as by-the-numbers and throwaway as any action film from the late 2000s, early 2010s, with an asterisk placed on the poster because of Garland A24’s involvement. It’s well-constructed but plain. It’s thrilling but forgettable. It’s interesting until it isn’t. 

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McDonald’s burgers are not particularly great food, they’re serviceable if you’re really hungry and don’t want to spend a lot of money on food. In the moment, they’re tasty but before you know it, you’ll be hungry for something more. Something meatier, more fulfilling that was lovingly prepared and cooked to perfection. Civil War is the Big Mac of A24’s library. If you want a fancy, well-cooked steak, there’s better options out there in their catalogue. There’s also a lot worse, you could be eating a plain McDonald’s hamburger like Men. 

So the question remains, would I recommend Civil War? I honestly don’t know. Again, I wasn’t personally offended by anything in the film while watching and came out of the screening feeling mostly indifferent. While there were moments that I’d genuinely consider pretty great, there’s a whole lot of missed potential. The universe that the world sets up is ripe for compelling social commentary, interesting thematic material and in the hands of somebody who’s willing to actually speak their mind, regardless of what the outcome would have made Civil War a film that justifies its existence. As it stands, it’s fine. Garland can do better, and I think he knows that. With the recent comments of him taking a stand back from the directing chair and putting more focus into writing, I think it’s obvious that Civil War was made because it could be made. Not because Garland had something he really wanted to dive into. Not because he wanted to create one of the next best action films. It’s there to exist, it’ll pop up on Netflix or Amazon Prime a year or two from now and I’ll be reminded “Oh, there’s that film that Garland made before he stopped directing” before watching film #38 in the Godzilla franchise after. At least they’re fully committed to the bit.


Civil War opens in UK cinemas April 12th, via Entertainment Film Distributors and A24.

Civil War - Entertainment Film Distributors/A24
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