SXSW 2024: ‘Civil War’ Focuses on the Trenches

Credit: A24 Stuidos

‘Civil War’, the latest film by Alex Garland, is not what you expect it to be. On the other hand, though, once the credits roll it becomes apparent it couldn’t possibly have been anything else. When the film itself was announced, as well as when the subsequent trailer was released, it was easy for the public to project current events upon it. Alex Garland has no interest in proselytizing, or even narrating within any real-life specifics. His Civil War is about something completely different. It could be in any time period, it could be in any nation. The themes explored here are timeless and universally human. 

The film plays a bit like a tour of human weakness, fragility, and trauma. From place to place, group to group, the underlying sense of brokenness and self-imposed civilizational blindness whisks us through the narrative until we stand among the wreckage of the finale. 

Both figuratively and literally. 

‘Civil War’ follows several wartime photographers and journalists. The entirety of the dystopian landscape is presented through their perceptional lens. This results in less of a current event or topical “what if” movie and more of an examination of human nature. 

The journalists traipse through ruins, collapsing infrastructure, and human denial.

The group itself seems to be an intentional cross-section of the generational populace. We have an older man, played by Stephen McKinley Henderson, a middle-aged man, played by Wagner Moura, a middle-aged woman, played by Kirsten Dunst, and a young woman, played by Cailee Spaeny. The way that each person and the representational generation they portray react in very different ways to the current landscape in which they find themselves within. 

The older man reacts with trepidation, caution, and a fear tinged with wisdom. The middle-aged man reacts with bravado,  humor, and adrenaline-tinged confidence. The middle-aged woman reacts with repression, apathy, and trauma-tinged sadness. The young woman reacts with zealous curiosity, ambition, and fear-tinged obsession.

It is also no accident that the quartet works in media. The film alludes to several competing media platforms and conflicting information. The result of this is violent tribalism, denial, and violent xenophobia. If anything, ‘Civil War’ is more interested in this aspect of civilization than anything else. The film asks what forms us, what causes us to choose sides, and ultimately what makes us blindly follow those sides to violence and death. 

So while Civil War may not be the current event film many will expect. It is a film with apropos messaging on what creates, forms, and fuels civilization; as well as what tends to destroy it from the inside. 

All this humanity on display is even more affecting during the brutal and elongated scenes of warfare within the film. The sound design, the refusal of the camera to cut away or fade out from the violence is nothing less than devastating. It is a film you will feel physically and emotionally. As an audience we see the micro level of human conflict and desire only to see it escalate into the macro moments of pure horrific warfare; when those human characters we met along the way seem to revert to animalistic and cold beings. It is accurate and chilling, and in that sense ‘Civil War’ is a film we won’t forget any time soon.