Civil War: Alex Garland spent so much money to say so little

Tom Davidson
6 min readApr 17, 2024
Kirsten Dunst as photojournalist Lee Smith (A24)

In the grand scheme of things, Civil War is not really an expensive movie. The reported $50m budget is a drop in the ocean compared to comic book tentpoles and blockbuster bonanzas.

For example, the upcoming action movie The Fall Guy has an estimated budget of $125m and somehow last year’s Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny ended up with a total cost of $295m.

Still, Civil War is A24’s most expensive movie to date and matches the highest budget ever given to British writer-director Alex Garland (his second feature Annihilation is reported to have had a budget of between $40m and $55m).

But whereas Annihilation was packed with ideas and questions, Civil War has almost none.

In fact the Civil War discourse has been.. that there is no discourse! Think: ‘How dare this domestic civil war movie not have any politics!’.

Civil War, in case you are unfamiliar, is set in the very near future where the USA is at war with itself; the so-called ‘Western Forces’ of Texas and California are marching on Washington DC and a splinter secessionist movement in Florida is also gaining power.

The movie largely skates over the ‘why’ of this scenario but there are some not-so-subtle hints for those who pay attention (Nick Offerman’s president is in a third term, has disbanded the FBI and ordered air strikes on his own citizens). But he has no political animus and there are no outright political conversations between characters to clue the audience in as to who are the ‘good guys’.

From the mind behind Ex Machina, the aforementioned Annihilation and the deeply weird Men, it is a surprising decision.

Garland has admitted that this was a conscious choice, in fact he wanted the ‘good guys’ to be the journalists and for them to be objective observers for all viewers, regardless of politics, hence the cryptic nature of the war itself.

But American critics in particular have savaged the movie for ‘both sides-ing’ the imagined conflict; essentially a charge of cowardice aimed at Garland when modern politics has never been more polarised (and most movie critics hate Trumpism).

This, however, does not bother me. And it did not bother me when I watched the film for the first time on Monday evening; it’s a fun movie overall, and I’d recommend it to friends.

But what has eaten at me since is that Garland’s movie has so little interesting to say otherwise as well (other than hurrr durr war is bad).

To set the scene, our ‘hero’ is Lee Smith, a renowned and grizzled war photographer played by Kirsten Dunst. She and Joel, a Reuters print journalist played by Wagner Moura, want to get to Washington DC before the ‘WF’ seize the White House and take down the president, both keen for the last photo/interview before his Gadaffi-esque demise.

Joining them is one old hand, Stephen McKinley Henderson’s Sammy, and one new, Cailee Spaeny’s Jessie, a young woman who idolises Lee and wants to become a war photographer herself.

Despite the harrowing trappings of war, Civil War is actually more of a road movie featuring these four souls as they are almost overwhelmed with terror, death and torture.

Think Apocalypse Now: a journey into the heart of darkness except this time the darkness at the centre is at the White House. An intriguing concept, you might think.

A five-star review by The Telegraph was titled: “Alex Garland’s Apocalypse Now for centrists thrills at every turn”.

Likewise The Financial Times’ less favourable review was titled: Apocalypse Now goes TikTok in a grandly tasteless disaster movie.

The main problem is that there is no darkness at the end or under the skin of Civil War. There’s tanks, gunfire, explosions and violence but no real darkness. Nothing to stick in the mind.

The White House is stormed and Nick Offerman is offered the chance for some final words (‘please don’t kill me’), before being unceremoniously shot dead.

And as the credits rolled I could not help but wonder what inspired Garland to make Civil War.

It’s not a ‘there but for the grace of God go we’ warning about civil conflict, it’s not a celebration of the power of photojournalism and it’s not a study of how war disturbs the psyche of a nation.

Dunst shows great chops as Lee, becoming increasingly jaded and disillusioned with her job. But there’s never any discussion about editors or commissions or who is actually looking at the photos she captures. Point camera and click, move onto next warzone.

“I wanted to put the press as the heroes,” Garland told the New York Times.

But there’s not even any real reason given for her suicidal quest to get to Washington, other than the desire to be the last one to photograph the president before his death. Is such an act going to stop the war?

Likewise her partner-in-crime Joel never so much as scribbles in a notepad, never mind actually filing any copy or speaking with editors. Videos or livestreams from the warzone? Forget it.

This journalism being created out of blood and guts doesn’t seem to be having any impact, by observing this war who are they saving and what are they saying? Like Garland, much of nothing.

The copious violence does appear to shake Lee (especially since, for the first time, it’s on domestic soil) but Joel just keeps on trucking, despite one all-too-close brush with death. Are they ‘war junkies’? Or ‘journalist junkies’? Civil War doesn’t really explore this.

It is worth noting that as part of his promotion of Civil War Garland has referenced Apocalypse Now and said it is ‘not exactly an anti-war film’ and it’s ‘quite romantic and quite seductive’.

Does he realise, I wonder, he’s created something just as seductive and romantic? Civil War is likewise replete with buzzy needle drops (none as instantly iconic as The Doors).

In opposition to Garland, I think Apocalypse Now is one of the most powerful anti-war films of the 20th century - the Ride of the Valkyries fishing village attack may get pulses racing, but it’s a horrific massacre of defenceless civilians.

Civil War doesn’t shy away from the selfsame blood and guts and horror of war. The journey to DC is broken up by various scenes that display the various reactions society might have to such a war: vigilantism, violence, indifference.

One stand-out scene featuring Jesse Plemons as a murderous ultranationalist is a bit too on-the-nose to be really interesting.

But there is so little meat to the bones of these scenes. When Joel expresses incredulity to a blissfully ignorant shopkeeper about the ongoing conflict, he doesn’t explain why the shopkeeper should care. The only way Garland gets a reaction is through sudden violence or over-egging the brutality (there’s a prolonged sequence involving a mass grave).

Apocalypse, of course, ends with Marlon Brando’s insane Colonel Kurtz pontificating on the theories of war and his praise of the Viet Cong.

His erratic, shadowy warrior philosophy gives the audience something to chew on, as does the ritual sacrificing of the water buffalo before Kurtz’s inevitable death at Willards’ hands.

There’s no such ending to Civil War, instead the film disappears almost as quickly as it arrives, with nothing to hold onto.

The president is dead and it’s good that journalists were there to observe it?

For all its violence and well-realised scenes of terror, Civil War lands as more of a damp squib.

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Tom Davidson

31-year-old journalist living in south westLondon trying my hand at some film writing as and when