SXSW 2024: ‘Civil War’ Disturbingly Depicts a War-Torn America

8 April 2024 / by Nicole. Soroka
Civil War Review 2024
SXSW 2024: ‘Civil War’ Disturbingly Depicts a War-Torn America
This first major blockbuster from A24 sheds light on the work of war photojournalists and showcases actress Kirsten Dunst in a new, rather grim, light.

In the not-so-far-off future, Civil War takes place in the United States, where the country has been divided to the point of life or death. While some are panicked and hiding away from their new threatening reality, others are parading the streets with guns and unleashing their anger on individuals who were once their neighbours. Many are angry at the government, resulting in several fatal rallies between soldiers and civilians. These trying times can only be captured by those brave enough to face the most terrifying combat zones. War photojournalism is not an occupation for the faint of heart, or even those who carry great empathy for the people around them. In times of violence, it’s a stranger’s face who may leave a lasting impression on the journalist courageous enough to capture their final few moments; someone they don’t even know, perhaps not even their name, a gruesome death burned into their brain forever. At least, this is just one of the emotions that the journalists in Civil War devastatingly depict through the screen. 


Written and directed by Alex Garland, the film stars Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, Cailee Spaeny, Stephen McKinley Henderson and Nick Offerman. Teaming up to score this film for their fifth partnership with Garland are Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, who have previously worked together on projects including Ex Machina (2014) and Annihilation (2018). With a running time of just under two hours, Civil War is sure to keep audiences on the edge of their seats. 


Civil War follows a team of war photojournalists chasing an exclusive interview with the President of the United States during the Second American Civil War. To the White House, the group must travel across the country and ultimately test their fate while coming face-to-face with the most threatening civilians in America. As Lee (Dunst) and Joel (Moura) are preparing to embark on their journey, Lee runs into an aspiring photographer, Jessie (Spaeny), who she previously saved during a street attack. When Jessie voices her ambition to join the experienced journalists on their unpredictable trip, the course and outcome of their plan unknowingly change for good. 


Civil War is unsettling, to say the very least. Without any background context as to what caused such a violent political uproar, audiences are thrown into a war zone during the first few minutes of the film. As the President appears on television screens across America, attempting to deliver a motivational speech, the film’s tone quickly establishes that his attempt at peacemaking will make very little impact. As his speech comes to a close, and a distressed Lee is pictured in her hotel room, an explosion is seen in the distance outside of her window. While the President’s words presumably aim to ignite hope, the array of orange and red flames instead signal that this war is just the beginning of a dark future. 


To many viewer’s surprise, Civil War does not include any tie-ins or nods to real-world politics. Since very little is said about the cause of the war, Garland seamlessly wrote a story that illustrates what could occur during a mass country-wide division, without pointing any fingers at the possible who or why. This is one of the many aspects that strengthens this film. Audience members are left guessing what led to this terrifying state of government and the even bigger question, how to prevent it from happening in real life. The more you think about this film, the more it plays tricks in your head. The most captivating types of cinema are the ones that strike a balance between fiction and reality, which is exactly what audiences can expect from Civil War


Dunst is the immediate standout in this film, with her character, Lee, leading their journalistic force of resistance. She does an incredible job of illustrating the pain that Lee masks so effortlessly, truly portraying how her broken spirit has seen more pain in a lifetime than anyone should be subjected to. Lee closes herself off from the rest of the world, all while documenting some of the darkest days that history has seen in her time on earth. Even when you think she would be scared, Lee stands strong and tough. However, when Jessie appears in her life, Lee’s sense of protection is shifted into high gear. Throughout the film, audiences begin to understand that Lee sees her younger self in Jessie and she wants to shelter the innocent parts of her that are still intact. This role is unique for Dunst and is unlike any other character audiences have seen her portray. She plays the role of Lee with such grit and grace all at once, proving just how versatile her skills truly are. 


The other aspects that truly elevate this film are the use of sound and cinematography. From the chair-shaking vibrations of gunshots to the solemn soundtrack throughout, it’s a good idea to sit a fair distance away from the speakers if you’d like to protect your ears. Many sounds are loud and sudden, adding to the shock factor of the film’s most gut-wrenching scenes. Even in silence, you can feel your heart pounding and the fabric of your chair rubbing against your fingers as you grip onto your armrest. To accompany this auditory feat are the stunning visuals on screen. Many of the areas that the journalists travel to have lavish greenery or pops of colour, which serves as an interesting contrast to the dark subject matter that is simultaneously being delivered. The war zone scenes are haunting and nothing short of spectacular. 


Civil War is brutal, emotionally tolling and a true work of passion. Garland highlights the dangerous work of war photojournalists and emphasizes how these individuals’ lives are forever impacted by their line of work. This film says so much without saying almost anything at all. Without much plot background, or a clear political stance, Civil War serves as a harsh reality check. If this is the future, what does this mean for our present? 


Civil War had its world premiere during the South by Southwest Film and TV Festival on March 14. Leading up to its theatrical release, the film has earned a 92 percent critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes. You can see Civil War at your local Cineplex theatre beginning April 12.