Civil war review: A cautionary tale that largely avoids politics, highlights brutality of war

James Cox

Given the subject matter, Alex Garland's Civil War could easily have slipped into an overly political commentary on the current divisions in the United States.

However, it does not focus on the politics, and instead captures the brutality of war, particularly wars that see neighbours, family and friends going up against each other.

Ahead of the 2024 US election, it is not controversial to say the United States is on a knife edge. Political commentators and academics regularly speak about the dangers of civil war.

One is Canadian novelist and cultural commentator Stephen Marche, who wrote a book entitled The Next Civil War: Dispatches from the American Future.

Mr Marche previously spoke to, and explained that his book was a warning about what might come.

Garland's film could also be seen as a warning, as it brings us to an America torn between warring factions and states that have seceded from the union.

The most powerful of these is the Western Front, a brutal and organised military that is closing in on Washington DC and the White House.

Holed up in the building is the extremely unpopular US president, played by Nick Offerman, who seems to be in denial about the situation.

Indeed, the film opens with him practicing a speech with an eerily Trumpian pronouncement: “Some are already calling it the greatest victory in the history of mankind.”

The film follows journalists Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst), Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), Joel (Wagner Moura) and Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson).

Sammy is a veteran New York Times reporter while Lee, a war photographer, and Joel work closely together for Reuters, with rookie Jessie tagging along.

The four of them are making a desperate and dangerous dash across the United States in a bid to make it to Washington before it falls to the Western Front.

The stunning scenes of a dystopian US are reflected in the brutal violence. Some of the best war films do nothing to glorify the brutality of conflict, and Civil War is definitely one of these films.

While it avoids becoming too political, it is a cautionary tale about where the abuse of power could lead the US, and the world.

From an abandoned JC Penney carpark, to an NFL stadium being used as a refugee camp, a decimated Washington monument, the scenery is striking throughout.

For those who are squeamish, it may be best avoided, but Civil War is a tense and beautifully filmed dystopian thriller that is well worth a watch.