Civil War Review: New Alex Garland Movie is Light on its Details and Vague in its Motives

Review: Alex Garland is so, so remarkably close to making a thoughtful statement on the tenuous state of affairs in our country with Civil War. But he pulls back when he should be going all in. The movie slips through his fingers when it comes to the biggest details. Kirsten Dunst and Wagner Moura co-star.

kirsten dunst civil war film 2024 review
Kirsten Dunst and Wagner Moura in Civil War (2024), directed by Alex Garland for A24

Civil War Review

Naming your movie Civil War is pretty daring. But Director Alex Garland is known for just that – being a provocateur with an eye for the future. Whether that be artificial intelligence, or the impending doom of mankind (or both), Garland is always looking forward. And he’s never painted that as painstakingly clear as he does in Civil War.

And needless to say, it’s Garland’s most polarizing film – and from the director that made Men only two years ago, that’s saying a lot. He displays a lot of precise and unique ideas throughout the movie’s brisk 109 minute runtime, and from the very beginning he’s overwhelming you with this vision.

But at the same time, Alex Garland seems to believe that the ambiguity of the plot engine in Civil War – Texas and California have found common ground in their joint efforts to secede from the United States and create a “Western Forces” alliance – will ultimately further add to the depth its director is aiming for. And in a way, the unmined backstory of this conflict is interesting to rummage through in your own mind as the movie progresses.

Yet that very concept never materializes into much on screen. Civil War is zero interest diving into how we got where we are, as well as who to root for and the ultimate goals of either side in the conflict. As the central photojournalists suggest, we’re just here to interpret what we see – make sense of the images and ultimately decide who the heroes are and who the villains are.

Which would be helpful if Civil War was at all interested in the structure of its own story. The movie just continues to push forward, playing both sides and avoiding taking any sides in a film that’s pitched as an alternate reality for our current political climate. For all the impending arguments that the movie stands as its own and doesn’t need to reflect real life, I would respond by noting that naming your film Civil War inherently suggests a sort of unfurling of modern societal and political trends.

Without getting too philosophical or (for lack of a better phrasing) corny, we look to reflect our own lives on the movies and television shows that we watch. To enter a screening for a movie titled Civil War, you’d expect a bit more commentary to grasp onto.

Take a painfully shallow and forced scene in the second act that features a drawn out performance from Jesse Plemons. A preachy soldier begins to decipher how your upbringing may impact the side that you choose to endorse in their ongoing conflict. The tension ratchets up rather quickly, but the scene cuts itself off before it can ever really make a concrete statement on anything.

Alex Garland has mentioned that this may be the last movie he directs for a while, which is a shame because he’s established himself as one of the great shot-creators in this generation of filmmakers. Civil War lives on such a grand scale, and feels so authentic and real in its biggest moments, that its hard to imagine that its director is just going to take a step back from here.

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He’s currently working on the script for 28 Years Later, and he’ll probably spend the foreseeable future writing rather than directing. But between Men and Civil War, his directorial chops have far outgrown his screenwriting chops. His sense of visual style is incredible here, with set pieces and set design that’ll go toe-to-toe with just about anything we get in 2024. It’s fully realized, even if the story to pair with it doesn’t quite match up.

The cast all hold their own. Kirsten Dunst and Wagner Moura lead the film as Lee and Joel, two experienced war journalists attempting to survive the vast landscape of the United States in shambles. They travel with the younger, inexperienced Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), who reflects the wistful nature of the youth feeling like their invincible. The other side of that coin is Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), who has seen nearly everything and offers poignant and necessary guidance for Jessie.

I’ll spend the rest of 2024 debating with myself whether I think Garland earns the final few scenes of the movie. Nick Offerman’s presidential character lingers over much of the film, and his fate is played for a site gag more than a reckoning. There are tonal shifts like this through – some of which work (like a few musical cues) and some of which not so much.

I’m fascinated to see how this movie will change in my estimation on a rewatch. It’s significantly less tied to its premise and more tied to its character than I expected. Garland is so, so remarkably close to making a thoughtful statement on the tenuous state of affairs in our country. But he pulls back when he should be going all in. It slips through his fingers when it comes to the biggest details.


Genre: Action, Drama, Thriller, War

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Civil War Movie Cast and Credits

civil war movie review 2024 alex garland


Kirsten Dunst as Lee

Wagner Moura as Joel

Cailee Spaeny as Jessie

Stephen McKinley Henderson as Sammy

Nick Offerman as The President

Jesse Plemons as Soldier


Director: Alex Garland

Writer: Alex Garland

Cinematography: Rob Hardy

Editors: Jake RobertsJens Baylis

Composers: Geoff BarrowBen Salisbury

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