Alex Garland’s ‘Civil War’ Offers a Warning

It’s no secret to anyone over the past ten years that the United States has become more polarized than at any time since the American Civil War. The 2024 presidential election may be a make-or-break moment for American democracy.

One would think it would be in poor taste to release a movie titled Civil War during such a crucial election year, especially when white Christian nationalists have hijacked the Republican Party and have abused democracy to get their way to the point of attempting to overthrow the government after losing an election. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party is often criticized as the do-nothing party, prioritizing the interests of foreign governments over those of the American people. As a result, America is at a crossroads. Do we continue with business as usual, or is it time for a change?

When I first saw the trailer for Alex Garland’s Civil War, I thought it would be a cheesy political drama about how left-right politics are polarizing us like never before and what might happen if we don’t stop Donald Trump—a piece of cheap propaganda from the Biden administration. However, when I saw the film, my initial assumptions were proven incorrect. As an aspiring journalist, I found that I could connect with the film and its characters, as the movie promotes traditional, old-fashioned journalism as a solution to polarization, division, and misinformation.
The movie features a United States divided into four factions: the Loyalist States, the Western Forces, the Florida Alliance, and the New People’s Army Alliance. What struck me most was the number of states that remained loyal to the union, even with a fascist president who dismantled the FBI and used drone strikes on American citizens, along with the unlikely alliance of California and Texas.

At the beginning of the movie, we are introduced to world-renowned photojournalist Lee Smith, played by Kirsten Dunst, who is planning a trip to Washington, D.C., with her colleague Joel, played by Wagner Moura, to interview the American president, played by Nick Offerman, before the city falls. Lee encounters an aspiring 23-year-old photojournalist named Jessie Cullen, played by Cailee Spaeny, who calls Lee her hero before saving her from a suicide bombing in Brooklyn. They find Lee’s mentor Samy, played by Stephen McKinley Henderson, who reluctantly agrees to be their driver after Lee and Joel reluctantly agree to let Jessie come with them as far as Charlottesville, where the Western Forces and the Florida Alliance are assembling to take the capital.

After leaving Brooklyn, the group reaches a gas station manned by armed men who fill up the tank in exchange for three hundred Canadian dollars, as the U.S. dollar has crashed and is essentially worthless. They fill up their tank as Jessie wanders off to a nearby car wash, where she finds two suspected looters being tortured by the owners. Lee manages to de-escalate the situation by having one of the owners pose with the torture victims for a photograph, though Jessie chickens out when it’s time to take the photos. The group decides to stop overnight to document nearby fighting, where Lee sees Jessie’s potential as a photojournalist as she photographs a militia executing loyalist soldiers. They spend the night at a refugee camp and pass through a small town the next day, where Lee and Jessie try on dresses at a local clothing shop.

The group then encounters snipers battling each other in the remains of a Christmas fair. The snipers mock Jessie for her questions about which side of the civil war they’re fighting on. However, Jessie’s nerve and photography skills show vast improvement from earlier as she develops a mentorship under Lee. When Jessie asks Lee if she would photograph her being killed, Lee responds, “What do you think?”

Once back on the road, the group encounters two of Joel’s colleagues, Bohai and Tony. Tony switches vehicles with Jessie, but Bohai and Jessie are captured by loyalist death squads dumping corpses into a mass grave. Lee, Tony, and Joel attempt to intervene, but the militant leader kills Bohai before killing Tony after Tony reveals he’s from Hong Kong. Just as the militants are about to kill the journalists, Samy plows into the militants with his car, yelling for the journalists to get in. However, Samy gets shot while they’re driving away and succumbs to his wounds upon arriving in Charlottesville, where Lee takes a photo of his corpse but ultimately decides to delete it. Joel gets drunk and hysterical as they mourn Samy’s loss, while Jessie explores the campsite. They soon find out that the president’s top generals have surrendered.

The surviving journalists arrive in Washington as the Florida Alliance and the New People’s Army Alliance join the Western Forces in invading the capital. The journalists enter the White House, realizing the president isn’t in his limousine. They face off with a Secret Service agent who unsuccessfully tries to negotiate safe passage for the president to Alaska or Greenland as gunfire erupts in the West Wing. Jessie photographs Lee being shot to death in the gunfight. Once Jessie and Joel get into the Oval Office, the Western Forces capture the president. Joel wants to get a final quote from the president, which he does before the Western Forces kill the president. Jessie photographs the soldiers posing with the president’s corpse.

As an aspiring journalist, what I liked most about Alex Garland’s Civil War is that it doesn’t focus so much on why the war happened, but on the independent journalists who are on a quest to discover the truth. I was also surprised to see California and Texas working together despite their vastly different political orientations. Alex Garland himself said the idea of having California and Texas on the same side was to avoid themes of specific political conflict. However, the film does portray the president as a fascist who somehow managed to get a third term in office, which could be seen as a jab at Donald Trump. However, the film made this jab in a subtle way, aligning with its anti-war and anti-polarization messages. At the end of the day, Civil War offers a glimpse into what America’s future could look like in five years, regardless of the outcome of the 2024 election. How will we handle ourselves as a country? Only time will tell.