If the United States went to war with itself again, how would it tear itself apart? That’s the question at the heart of Alex Garland’s new movie “Civil War.” The how, not the why

Written in 2020 and out this Friday, the new film from Garland (the writer of “28 Days Later” and director of “Ex Machina” and “Annihilation”) imagines what it would be like if the present-day United States was devastated by the type of conflict that’s destroyed so many countries in recent decades. In doing so, he’s created what may be the best film of the year so far. 

Since the film’s first trailer dropped last year and the premise was revealed, there has been heavy discourse about what “Civil War” is trying to say. How political is it? How much of the current hyper-partisan divide will the film recreate? 

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The film is less concerned with the politics behind such a conflict and more about how a modern American civil war would lead to Americans inflicting brutality on one another, how people would try to survive, and what an end to the conflict would look like. Taking influences from civil wars in Spain, Syria, and Yugoslavia, Garland and his team crafted a uniquely American horror story.

The setup is relatively simple: The United States has become divided. A coalition of secessionist states, led by California and Texas, are the Western Forces, fighting an ongoing and heavy war against the federal government. The Florida Alliance, meanwhile, is fighting from the southern part of the country, though they are not as strong, apparently. The unnamed tyrannical president, played by “Parks and Rec” alum Nick Offerman, is only briefly in the film. Most of his scenes are in audio-only newscasts as audiences get glimpses of why he’s become so hated: he’s somehow on a third term and has been ordering airstrikes against American citizens despite his more patriotic and pseudo-pro-unification rhetoric. 

Amid that setup, the movie tracks a pair of veteran journalists, photojournalist Lee (Kirsten Dunst) and reporter Joel (Wagner Moura) as they set out to reach fortified Washington, D.C. as the Western Forces try to break past the front lines in Charlottesville. They’re joined by aging New York Times reporter Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and rookie photojournalist Jesse (Cailee Spaeny), who talks her way onto the trip despite Lee’s misgivings. 

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Anyone looking for clear answers on the political splits and how the conflict started won’t get them. There’s enough information to get a sense of the world the movie takes place in, but not much more. The war has been going on for at least some time, with the front lines pushing further toward D.C. even as the wreckage of the war hits states far away. The Canadian dollar has real buying power while the American one has become almost useless. There are some echoes of real-world American issues and politics, with small-town locals wary of any outsider or one fighting force decked out in the Hawaiian shirts appropriated by the Boogaloo movement. When a camo-clad and sunglasses-sporting Jesse Plemmons appears late in the film in one of the movie’s most tense scenes, it is a scary reminder of the xenophobia in the country. 

In many ways, “Civil War” is less of a war film than it is a road movie. The text on screen tracks the journalists’ progress to D.C., with the movie unfolding as a series of vignettes on their trip (and like many good road movies, “Civil War” has an excellent and eclectic soundtrack). Think of the story as a kind of “Heart of Darkness” through a divided U.S.

Perhaps the most effective tool the movie has is its use of recognizable American settings, turned upside down by the realities of war. “Civil War” is filled with familiar images: strip malls, long stretches of roads dotted with gas stations and fast food spots, or the massive parking lots of the suburbs featuring bombed-out buildings, crashed helicopters, or the sudden mass grave. 

'Civil War' (photo courtesy A24)
‘Civil War’. (photo courtesy A24)

Away from the front lines, school football fields are turned into refugee camps, while internally displaced people struggle to get water, even in a city as big as New York. One vignette in a small town trying its best to present itself as a peaceful bit of Americana staying out of the war ends in an eerie reveal. Even moments of levity — there is a good dose of dark humor amid the horrors — turn terrifying. An overpass with “Go Steelers!” written on it draws some laughs only for the viewer to realize corpses are hanging below it. Garland and cinematographer Rob Hardy don’t shy away from the reality of what this kind of war would be like, although it never lingers on gore. Anyone familiar with combat footage or photos from places such as Kherson or Sarajevo will see parallels. 

That’s not to say “Civil War” ignores the actual realities of war. Garland, with military advisor Ray Mendoza, delivers some of the most intense modern combat footage put to screen. Gunshots are terrifyingly loud, with the film putting viewers right in the middle of fierce firefights. It’s some of the best and most realistic combat in a film since Christopher McQuarrie’s “The Way of the Gun.” There’s squad-on-squad combat through a Brutalist campus, while a later sniper duel mixes well-earned tension with some surrealness as a sniper and spotter duo hide out in an abandoned golf course. 

The film climaxes with the invasion of D.C., a set piece that will be seared into audiences’ minds for years to come. It’s clear why this turned out to be A24’s most expensive film at $50 million, with tanks and helicopters maneuvering through Washington, streams of tracer rounds filling the sky, and large numbers of troops pushing block by block, building by building, to reach the White House. It’s one of the most intense depictions of urban warfare on screen in recent years.

'Civil War' (photo courtesy A24)
‘Civil War’ (photo courtesy A24)

Anchoring it all is the four main actors. Dunst is at the core of the movie, with a professionalism and weariness that feels all too real. She and Spaeny provide some of the film’s richest moments. Moura’s passionate, affable Joel is partially in the backseat before getting moments to shine in some of the strongest scenes of “Civil War.” Henderson, a reliable character actor who has a habit of bringing some gravitas and charm to films like “Dune,” is equally warm and amusing with a strong bit of dry wit. As Joel and Lee say, their job is not to be the story but to document what’s happening and share it with the world. That being said, the journalists are the heart and soul of what makes this movie complete. 

The lack of direct and overt politics in the film might leave some feeling cheated out, but Garland’s movie hits at something more universal: “Civil War” is about the wars abroad coming home, the ease at which people can turn on one another and what it takes to tell the stories of war. It’s the best film of the year so far and will stay in the thoughts of audiences for some time. 

“Civil War” is in theaters Friday, April 12. 

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