Civil War (2024)

Alex Garland’s Civil War is gorgeously shot with immaculate sound design and an attention to mise-en-scene that’s absent from most current media apart from graphic novels. Every frame is there for a reason, there’s a kind of painterly quality to Garland’s narrative, the flow feels like the travel of ones gaze over a huge canvas that sometimes reveals hidden, tiny beauty and sometimes fixates on bloody terror.

There’s not a single duff performance or actor in the whole film, from the smallest bit parts up to the main roles. If only all films paid this kind of care to creating a believable, immersive world of interacting actors. Of course, Jesse Plemons is one of the standouts with his cameo, effortlessly justifying his prominence in the trailer. But Dunst, Moura, Spaeny and Mckinley Henderson are faultless, as is Garland’s faux-documentarian direction of them. It’s a very light touch that pays off in immersiveness. There are tributes to great war films gone, like All Quiet On The Western Front and Catch 22 but they’re subtle, they don’t slap you in the face, Tarantino style.

WARNING – minor spoilers ahead!

Now, onto all the hooha I’ve seen about this film, the main complaint being the lack of action. 

This is not an action film. I am not being snobby here as I love a good, stupid action film like John Wick or Top Gun: Maverick. There’s a time and place for every film. Yes, even Dude, Where’s My Car. To repeat, Civil War is not an action film.

It is an entirely different thing. It’s a film about war and how easily we lose our humanity. 

Israel has, as of today, murdered 37,000 civilians using US and European weapons. That’s including probably around 18,000 children. Read that again – 18,000 children. 

But in the West, most people carry on caring about football scores and reality TV stars more than the massacre of innocents carried out with their direct funding, with their taxes. This mirrors one of the central scenes of Civil War where the protagonists visit an apparently idyllic town, seemingly untouched by the brutal conflict raging over the rest of the US. When they question the archetypical bored shop assistant, she replies that they’re aware something is going on ‘out there’ but it doesn’t really affect them so who cares? 

Obviously, Civil War is not addressing Gaza in particular as it was made before this latest Israeli war crime but it is certainly addressing how we dehumanise people. And once those people are made into non-humans, it becomes very easy to murder, torture and maim them.

This is the central message of Civil War. Garland doesn’t care which side is which, who is fighting who and what about. The reviewers complaining about those omissions are completely missing the point of the film; they are irrelevancies. Moreover, if Garland had made it an explicitly Left versus Right film, then the audience would have chosen their side and loved/hated it according to that. By keeping it vague, by dropping lines about “Antifa Massacre” without saying if it was Antifa doing the massacring or being massacred, Garland very neatly sidesteps this enormous pitfall and keeps the film on track, the subject on track. The subject is war itself, not any particular political ideology. Why else would he make one of the sides a very unlikely sounding coalition between California and Texas? 

A modern day, post-Trump US Civil War was just a catchy framing device that Garland knew would get bums on seats. Once he has you there, he’s going to show you horror after horror that could be committed by your neighbours, given the right situation. People you used to nod a half-smiled hello at on your street could end up pointing a rifle at your face. Regions, districts and even families ripped apart over something, we don’t know what and it doesn’t matter. What matters is what humans are willing to do to other humans once they’re in this evil, empty space. 

Another reward of Garland setting his antiwar diatribe in modern-day America is that it bypasses the Western viewer’s inherent racism and colonialism. If he’d set this in a Middle Eastern country, people would simply not have cared about the war crimes: the West is completely not bothered by seeing brown people blown up or murdered in cold blood in yet another dusty shanty town or orange-filtered desert scene. Blame that on Hollywood’s output since 9/11 and its hugely successful Islamophobic agenda. Brown lives don’t matter to white people. But put white people on screen warring against each other, being brutally shot for no reason or strung up for fun and that will have an impact, that will make people stop and go, ‘Oh, isn’t war awful?’ Garland knows Western audiences have zero compassion for non-Western suffering. 

The final scenes of Civil War are both deliberately shocking and banal. They depict the normalisation of war, the conversion of barbarism into yet another grisly press photo we scroll past on the way to today’s scores or latest Taylor Swift puff piece. I feel it’s the only ending a film like this could have.

Civil War has a rightful place alongside other antiwar classics and I would have no hesitation ranking it alongside Slaughterhouse Five or Oh, What A Lovely War. It manages to shake us awake, to make us once again incredulous that we let such disgusting acts take place in our name and with our support.

It is not a feel-good action film, it is a feel bad antiwar film.


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