Film review: Civil War

Kirstin Dunst in Civil War

By Ben Wheeler

Buyer beware! This is not an addendum to the already bloated Marvel Cinematic Universe! I repeat: Not! A! Marvel!

It is instead a sporadically shockingly violent, surreal and contemplative blend of road movie and war movie from indie studio A24, and their most expensive film to date. As a cinematic experience that reminded me a lot of Sam Esmail’s incredible Leave the World Behind, a Netflix film that sadly had no theatrical release, as it was one of the most powerful movies of 2023.

What both films share is a glimpse into the fin de siècle days of the American Empire. Where they differ is in their focus. Leave the World Behind beautifully renders the confusion that people in the United States feel now, and also the disbelief that would be felt should their society suddenly implode. It is the destabilisation of reality at the heart of the film that allowed a billionaire reality television star to become president, and when he failed to secure a second term and had destroyed any remnants of consensus reality the US in the 21st century, he incited a charge on Capitol Hill in real life.

This is all right out of the dystopian cinema handbook, apart from the way people reacted once they got inside those Capitol buildings, which was anything but spectacular. It was… confused: they took photos and videos and fed them back into the virtual reality that had urged them to go there in the first place. Ironically this gave authorities the evidence they needed to prosecute them in the days and weeks that followed.

In Civil War writer director Alex Garland (Men, Annihilation, Ex Machina) pushes the self-reflexivity into overdrive, making the focus of his film journalists, war photographers and videographers in the mix of the violence and confusion. What we experience then, as the film spirals towards its conclusion, is not only their loss of meaning, but also the loss of the ability of the media to accurately represent and communicate any meaning, but beautifully, artistically rendered.

Civil War bombards the audience with a bangarang of images and sounds – an audio-visual Molotov cocktail that leaves us bewildered as we attempt to process brutal assassinations juxtaposed with De La Soul’s upbeat Say No Go, and slow-motion images of a forest on fire to the sublime strains of Sturgill Simpson’s Breakers Roar.

“Everything is not what it seems/ This life is nothing but a dream,” Simpson laments in that lullaby, one of the most on-the-nose moments of symbolism in the film.

Garland’s choice to use “the media” as his entry point into the action lends more than a meta-fictional air. Attempts to remove us emotionally from the action with dispassionate old hands schooling a young photographer on the necessity of journalistic objectivity, while Garland uses everything in his increasingly impressive cache of movie tricks to draw you in to a subjective and impressionistic experience of each moment that radically undercuts their lessons.

The result is disorientating, albeit in a woozily pleasant way. It is reminiscent of the dreamlike cinematography of such classics as Apocalypse Now! or Full Metal Jacket, and provides a true cinematic analogue for what it feels like to grapple with politics or culture or most anything anywhere in the world in the twenty first century in the same way those films did in the late twentieth century.

Buy your ticket, strap in and enjoy the ride as the full cinematic arsenal is deployed here and mark my word it just won’t be the same watched at home. Just don’t go in looking for internal logic or answers – you’ll come out with the thousand-yard stare. And definitely don’t go in looking for Captain America.

Civil War is showing in cinemas this week.

One Comment “Film review: Civil War”

  • Matthew Butson


    Great review. I enjoyed the film and was drawn in by some extraordinary scenes and performances. The lack of internal logic did bother me though. This combined with the filmaking decision for minimal exposition (which I felt drew attention to rather than covered up some potential narrative flaws) left me not buying some of the main thrusts of the movie. I bought the performances and cared about people, just not the setup. The Jessie Plemons scene is a case in point. On the edge of my seat watching it, but didn’t really buy the convenient setup of the scene immediately before or really the whole barely credible civil war setup.

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