Civil War film poster and movie review

Movie Reviews

Civil War

Reviewed by:
Luke Bonanno on April 11, 2024

Theatrical Release:
April 12, 2024

Distributed by A24 and in IMAX, "Civil War" is a union of arthouse and popcorn, one that won't fully satisfy the distinct needs of either audience but comes pretty darn close most of the time.

Running Time109 min


Running Time 109 min


Alex Garland

Alex Garland

Kirsten Dunst (Lee), Wagner Moura (Joel), Cailee Spaeny (Jessie), Stephen McKinley Henderson (Sammy), Sonoya Mizuno (Anya), Nelson Lee (Tony), Evan Lai (Bohai), Nick Offerman (President), Jesse Plemons (),

Civil War (2024)

by Luke Bonanno

Alex Garland has made his name in Hollywood for crafting timely and thoughtful genre works, as novelist (The Beach), screenwriter (28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go), and most recently, writer-director (Ex Machina, Annihilation). Garland’s fourth and latest film at the helm, Civil War, is on brand, an action thriller centered on a modern-day United States of America in the throes of, well, civil war.

With how fiercely divided the country has been over the past two presidencies, Garland’s premise is not all that far-fetched and his presentation is quite easy to take at face value. Usually, when you have a contemporary skirmish based in fiction not fact, it makes for ridiculous escapist cinema, movies like Red Dawn, Air Force One, and Olympus Has Fallen. Garland has not made something like that, but it is an exciting, mainstream piece of entertainment. Distributed by A24 and in IMAX, Civil War is a union of arthouse and popcorn, one that won’t fully satisfy the distinct needs of either audience but comes pretty darn close most of the time.

Accomplished war photographer lee (kirsten dunst) becomes reluctant mentor to the young jessie (cailee spaeny) in alex garland's "civil war. "

Living up to its title, this is very much a war film, one we approach not via politics or one particular side of this deadly, dystopian conflict but a personable quartet of journalists making a perilous journey to Washington, D.C. There, the President (Nick Offerman) has been issuing encouraging updates on the state of things. We know better than to trust his rehearsed and deliberate speeches, having witnessed first-hand the chaos in the streets where self-made militia detonate explosives, rolling blackouts are a part of life, and no one, not even a respected member of the press, is safe.

That class includes our ostensible heroine, renowned wartime photojournalist Lee (Kirsten Dunst), her loyal and longtime colleague Joel (Wagner Moura), the pair’s aging, hobbled old mentor-turned-competitor (Stephen McKinley Henderson), and wide-eyed 23-year-old aspiring photographer (Priscilla‘s Cailee Spaeny), who joins their ranks determined to become Lee’s protégé after a close call.

Garland does a fine job of developing these four lead characters, who form an accessible and sympathetic surrogate family amidst this destructive turmoil. We tag along with them as they zig-zag their way around a highway full of abandoned vehicles and witness where distrust and division has brought the United States, from assault rifle stand-offs to relief communities to one retail area where business carries on as usual. Garland’s film reminds one of a non-comedic version of Zombieland, where the threat is not the bloodthirsty undead but Americans up in arms about what the country is and where it’s headed.

Alex garland's "civil war" presents a modern-day apocalypse without natural or supernatural destruction.

Despite that design, Civil War is fiercely apolitical. That makes sense from a business point of view, where its $50 million budget is the biggest in A24’s twelve-year history and an anomaly in a business that has virtually erased the middle class in favor of tentpoles and outliers. The general public rarely rewards overtly political filmmaking these days and such an approach would represent commercial suicide for a wide release action movie. On blockbuster movies like Avatar and Top Gun: Maverick, the politics and allegory are not surface level and not high on the minds of most forking over $20 or much more for an opening weekend IMAX ticket.

At the same time, you expect substance from Garland and from A24, the latter of whichc has emerged as the most trusted brand in quality cinema, a distributor with all the street cred from its challenging elevated horror, inventive multiverse Oscar winner, and a variety of offbeat, authentic human stories. Those coming to Civil War as the latest work of the dependable hipster studio might be disappointed to find the film essentially skirting around the ideas at its foundation. The President of the movie is not Trump and he’s not Biden, but he inspires the unease and skepticism that both leaders’ detractors are full of.

If you can make peace with that design, instead of decrying it as toothless, you should find Civil War to be an intense, absorbing experience, especially in IMAX, where the tension is especially extreme, with the high-octane sound system rendering the steady stream of combat sounds particularly potent. Garland made a seamless transition from writer to visual storyteller on Ex Machina, an Oscar nominee for Original Screenplay and winner for Visual Effects. Nearly a decade later, his instincts remain sharp and rewarding. Even without committing to a political stance, the film gives us much more to think about than your typical new action (read: superhero) flick. Like how our infrastructures falling apart could turn even fueling up an SUV into a dangerous, costly gamble.

It isn’t until the very end of Civil War when frivolous movies like Olympus Has Fallen come to mind, and by then you’ve already been moved, shaken, and stirred. This of-the-moment film may not age as gracefully as Garland’s first two, but it’s similarly a journey worth taking, one whose horrors involve zero science and not much more fiction.

Related Reviews

Directed and/or Written by Alex Garland

Now in Theaters

DVDizzy Top Stories