In “Civil War;” Contemporary Politics as Plot Gimmick

Patrick Koske-McBride
11 min readMay 4, 2024


I just saw Alex Garland’s “Civil War,” the film made specifically for this exact moment in American history — made so specifically for this moment that it will be irrelevant by the fifth week of the Trump Trial.

I’ve heard people — Garland himself — discuss the politics of this film, and whether it’s apolitical. Literally in the the theater I saw it in, the hillbillies behind me loudly concluded that the film was a solid endorsement of Second Amendment principles. In the exact same theatre, my best friend and mother (two separate people) concluded that the film is predicated upon the unforeseen consequences of everyone having a gun. These sorts of vague, “How could two different political groups read confirmation bias in the same artwork?” questions are red herrings to confuse the rubes about the politics of this piece.

The politics don’t ultimately matter, or even impact the story, because the story is aplotical (Latin, “without a coherent story”). The film is about a Western Federation (or Western Forces) — comprised of long-time economic allies, Texas and California, taking a run at a third-term president. Who has successfully dismantled Florida’s attempt to secede. Don’t worry about the plot or plotlines; there are plenty to go around, and you, the audience, get the privilege of providing a rich backstory for Kirsten Dunst and Wagner Moura that forms a collegial relationship, that is conveyed by less than 50 lines of dialog. Estranged, divorced couples who have been suddenly forced into a lawyer’s office to sign-off on an overlooked estate planning detail, have longer, more convincing discussions than Wagner and Dunst. In this film, they have negative chemistry. But, somehow, they’re chummy enough to leave the relative safety of New York to travel west through Ohio, and then south to DC through West Virginia. This would be my generation’s Apocalypse Now — an overly-ambitious, fatally-flawed depiction of modern warfare that absolutely needs to be seen in theaters (this film relies on those 20-m, 900 dB speakers and screens to get the audiovisual effects right), except the characters in AN all had distinct personal goals and roles on the boat. In this shambolic end-time fairy-tale; Wagner Moura maybe has the most-obvious character motivation. He’s a journalist for Reuters! And he wants to get an interview with Despotic President Ron Swanson! Who has killed journalists! Is he the Whitest Dude in any horror movie? Maybe! Why is he willing to risk life and limb to potentially interview an autocratic politician, for no perceptible stakes or incentive? Because he’s a journalist for Reuters, and the only perceptible nuance or detail Garland takes in this story is to carefully cultivate critics’ self-importance; and sacrificing oneself for Truth distracts NYT critics from the fact that a paycheck rarely overcomes self-preservation for most of us.

The other characters are less well-defined. Kirsten Dunst has bad PTSD, as a war photographer, so… she’s trying to find more war? Cailee Spaeney gets full points for having a discernible character arc, and goals, but she doesn’t show up for the first 20 minutes. Her character arc, at the most-complete, is simply that she’s from Missouri; then in NYC, then tagging along with Moura and Dunst in a bid to be a war photographer, a goal that she seemingly completes by capturing Dunst’s death on-camera in the penultimate scene of the film. That would be a spoiler, but, by that point in the film, I was simply grateful that I would be shortly returned to an existence in which linear coherence was a thing, and I would be linked to the past and future via my current condition. That sensation of a coherent past, present, and future existing alongside, in the events and characters, is utterly absent throughout this film.

The film is an odd collection of post-apocalyptic scenes, in a surreal, impressionist cross-country road trip, except that framing would require standing still long enough to explain anything. In one memorably weird scene, Our Heroes successfully negotiate for a tank of fuel (paid for with Canadian dollars)(The Loonies and Toonies make it dystopian!). One character discovers that one of the gas station “owners” has two “Looters” crucified around back. And this isn’t even a basic, “We caught two twits and strung ’em up out back,” crucifixion; there’s heavy industrial equipment involved.

Friends, I do not know you, your mental or physical limitations or advantages, or your life story, but, if I encounter human beings tortured to death in my vicinity; that’s it for my planned schedule. Despite driving through “Deliverance,” Our Intrepid Heroes are undisturbed, and immediately race to the next scene, rather than attempt anything like denouement. I could totally understand the impulse to move at speed from any group that believes in Biblical Execution, but there is literally no acknowledgment of the situation from any of the characters. Not even an, “Hey, isn’t it amazing that Billy Bob and Cooter went “Full Deliverance” in less than a month?” The closest we get is Dunst sort of charming the lead homicide suspect to pose next to his victims while she gets photos. You know, like any person with the same common sense God gave rocks would do.

Which brings up an excellent framing fix in this whole thing: Instead following several “White Dude in a Horror Movie” journalists who bumble from one dangerous situation from the next; make it a chase movie. Maybe our intrepid heroes angered a NYPD chief and had to run to the fog of war for protection. Certainly, “Desperately fleeing from one scene to the next” is a far more memorable method of travel than the characters’ SUV, which magically teleports characters from exciting scene to exciting scene without anything like a pause in the mindless, endless action scenes. I remember one scene in which the characters are all shooting at other (unnamed) characters in a strip mall, or middle school, but no memory of how they arrived or left. It’s indicative of how the film is meant to be watched — in big, showy, 3–5 minute Youtube clips.

My insight into what this film really is came from my mother. For everyone wondering why an allegedly grown man would go to the theater with friends and parents; if you’re trying to talk yourself into seeing a film you are deeply uncertain warrants your time and money, you talk yourself into it by dragging your poor friends along. You don’t tell them that they’re going to be your subconscious permission structure to see a mediocre film that’s grabbed headlines; you simply go. I bring up Mom in the same paragraph as my epiphany and the idea of 5 minute Youtube segments, because, like everyone else; I’ve seen the now-infamous clip of Wagner Moura & Co. wandering into a sniper’s nest of allegedly American soldiers shooting at alleged enemies. That scene is a perfect summary of this film, because there is literally no bookend to that scene. The characters arrive on the scene as-is; and flee the scene in a predictable hail of bullets. Stephen McKinley Henderson’s character dies, but that has less impact on the story than President Ron Swanson’s death.

I’m not a veteran, so, I absolutely would not know, BUT, in my media diet; I’ve been led to believe that, even in the most disastrous, D-Day air-drop scenarios; it’s generally frowned upon for soldiers wandering the countryside to shoot up farm houses without first confirming who is inside. These soldiers are significantly less interested in rules and regs, or even “ammunition conservation” than in making “Pew Pew!” noises in the middle of hostile country. Again, there are any number of hypothetical scenarios that could make this nonsensical scene make sense. Hell, even a throwaway line of dialog, “We’re bivuoacked on that ridge, and the staff sergeant told us to take this house” would serve. Instead, like literally every other scene in this film; this scene is emotionally and coherently disconnected from every other. It is only thematically connected to the rest of the film, and that theme is, “War is terrible” (why would Alex Garland seize upon a theme so controversial yet bold?). I hated this scene because there’s absolutely no plot or emotional significance in it that warrants killing a character (BTW, if you want a franchise that goes out of its way to establish that no character is safe, “24” is better-scripted). My mother loved it, because in a war, it’s entirely plausible that those insane scenarios would arise (ignore the ever-present nature of cell phones to document war crimes). It was at that moment in the post-film conversation that I realized that Garland took “The Marvels” or “Wakanda Forever” approach to a topic of national relevance.

I love both of those films, but they are, first, last, and always, sequels that are defined by a set of internal Marvel Studios’ quality checklists. Again, I love those films, but the fundamental problem with them is that there was no attempt to persuade an audience. You bought the ticket and walked into the theater knowing if you would love the film, beforehand. “Civil War” operates in a similar, “Did we check THIS box?” fashion (in the interests of fairness, “The Marvels” didn’t really need that Bollywood dance number — it was fun, but it exists solely to reiterate that the film is fun, colorful, and conforms to white audiences’ ideas of Asian ethnicity), but with modern military imagery, rather than fun visual gimmicks. It was only after I realized that sniper scene in Civil War only exists to keep the action beats going long enough to confuse viewers from any inconvenient questions; that I realized what this film is, and what it’s trying to do.

We are entering our 53rd week of Former President (and current napper-in-chief) Hubert Krump’s criminal trial for using tax evasion to influence a national election. Jeffrey Toobin’s “Homegrown,” a journalistic narrative of Timothy McVeigh and the rise of American domestic terrrorism, is out. Spielberg’s “Lincoln” has been out for 12 years. The window for anyone to express an original thought on American Civil War is shrinking by the day. This film is A24’s attempt to gauge what will or won’t sway audiences on a subject that’s leaping from the storyboard to headlines faster than Hollywood can profit. Groups like “Meidas Touch” and, “The Franklin Project” are working directly to encourage civic participation. We are in the final months when a modern civil war is both plausible, and an unknown quantity. In this environment, A24 is trying to find that media sweet spot of being “shocking and challenging” while still being, “Accessible to Middle America.” That’s an impossible order for an American audience that can turn on the news and see massacres in Raffah, or Black Americans being shot by LAPD officers at the USC campus.

Alex Garland had the unfortunate timing to come in to a deteriorating global situation, with an increasingly bored, jaded viewership, and ask, “So, does THIS disturb you?” And that’s it. That is the sum total point of this film; to expose audiences to a series of upsetting, disconnected images, and gauge our collective reaction. Are there good questions posed by the film? Absolutely; regarding the delicate nature of democracy, and American bloodthirstiness. Are any of these questions explored with any greater depth than a passing chyron at the bottom of a CNN screen? Absolutely not. That visually-exciting scene of alleged US soldiers dumping bodies in a giant pits that evoke the Khmer Rouge’s infamous “Killing Fields?” Cool idea, bro; this film doesn’t refer to it in any successive scene, so, you’re left to draw your own conclusions (and, ultimately, write your own story) about genocide on American soil. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, DON’T GOOGLE WHAT WE DID TO THE NAKOTA, OR THE CIVILIANS OF ALAMOGORDO, OR ANY OF THE DOZENS OF WELL-DOCUMENTED HISTORICAL INSTANCES OF US THAT GARLAND DIDN’T FIND INTERESTING ENOUGH TO REFERENCE.

Before this comes up; I am aware that Alex Garland didn’t want to get bogged down in the details and myriad hypotheticals that could lead to a US President seizing power and attempting to put down ensuing revolutions. Fine; I would be amazed at a road trip through America At War with Itself. Unfortunately, that would require some basic follow-up questions, like, “Yeah, even in war zones, wouldn’t local authorities — or just the neighbors — be opposed to crucifixion?” Or even giving audiences a detailed scene of going through a militia-held check-point (which almost happens in a serene montage that has no impact or speech). But, all of these issues of “plot” and “substance” are for those bean-counters in the Accounting Department! Alex Garland did NOT write “The Beach” to become a coherent storyteller, by God, and certainly not one to be bothered by trifling details like “plausibility” or “linear connection.”

All the talk about the politics of this film, or even the plot glosses over exactly what this film is; my generation’s “Apocalypse Now;” designed to titillate and excite audiences who never had to survive this era, and largely ignored by those of us who turn on the news and see this era actually play out. And, exactly like “Apocalypse Now,” for all the hoopla post-home-release fanbois will give it; it will lose all visual and visceral impact the millisecond audiences aren’t held captive by a 50-tonne screen in front of them. The second you, the viewer, can say, “This scene is great, but I need to use the bathroom and grab a beer” rather than remain pinned to a cinema seat; the sweeping violent images lose their critical nature. Needless to say, regardless of the electoral outcome; this film will be completely irrelevant to society after the 2024 elections, This film exists solely in the theaters of early 2024, and it was only ever meant to. It doesn’t live on in post-film discussions; nor will it get a nod from the Academy.

In a strange sense, A. Garland accidentally completely summarized America’s current cultural zeitgeist: every waking moment is so consumed by the press of history that nobody really notices it, or appreciates it. Nobody who isn’t employed by the DNC or RNC has time to follow Marjorie Taylor Green, Kristi Noem, AND Donald Trump’s trials, so, most of us turn off and get back with our lives. Alex Garland wants you all to know, through this movie, that, unlike us, He is watching. However, his clear contempt for the subject matter makes it painfully obvious that he is exactly as informed, inquisitive, and imaginative on the subject as any of my friends who turn off the news because it’s all a bit too much. To my friends who turn away from the news; I may vehemently disagree with you on the topic of political disengagement and ignorance; after this film, I empathize. Life is an abattoir, and our endless 24/7 news cycle is exhausting, confusing, abusive, and depressing. If I’d been able to duck out of the theater for a 20 minute snack break, I would have. I’m sure I would have missed some haunting visuals.

I discussed this film with my father, and my final recommendation to him remains my overall, lasting impression of the film, “If you’re looking for a fun way to kill two hours and can see this film for less than $15, this is your movie. If you miss it, your life will go on completely unchanged.” And that’s the film: a disconnected hodgepodge of contemporary cultural ideas connected only by Andy Warhol’s sentiment, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” This film doesn’t even last 15 minutes after leaving the cinema parking lot.



Patrick Koske-McBride

Science journalist, cancer survivor, biomedical consultant, the “Wednesday Addams of travel writers.”