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Civil War review from John DeSando

“What kind of American are you?” Unnamed Soldier (Jessie Plemons)

Writer/director Alex Garland’s masterpiece, Civil War, asks each American in this election year about their understanding of their own allegiances and, should the time come, how they would display their loyalty to democracy, election or not.


Four photojournalists travel in their “Press” station wagon to Washington, DC, where insurrectionists are descending on The White House to take down the president. The audience can be forgiven if they are reminded about the Jan 6 storming of the Capitol Building.


Garland has deftly left the rebels ambiguous so that the audience can think for themselves what political persuasion would deign to sabotage democracy. Seasoned journo Lee (an impressive Kirsten Dunst) is well-known for her hard-nosed, stoic reaction to war, a required attitude necessary for her as she boldly follows foot soldiers in the immediate line of the action. The assignment transforms the stoic Lee in ways both predictable and surprising.

The youngest member of the four is Jessie (Cailie Spaeny), a 23-year-old newbie who stands for us in her astonishment and love of artistry with the camera. As she faces down the slaughter all along the road to DC through West Virginia, we, too, learn that war in any form is ugly and inscrutable.


All the journalists follow the war more closely than I would have thought, sometimes directly behind the soldiers. Their passionate purpose, to depose the president, is scary in their determination and their efficiency in getting to DC.


Along the way various indeterminate rebellious factions spread destruction seemingly without detection or detention. In one memorable set piece, the journalists come upon a devastated farm where, headed by an unnamed care-less soldier (Jesse Plemons), asks the what kind of Americans they are (see quote above) and shoots if he doesn’t like their hesitation. Garland is reminding us of the random nature of crime and the uneasy defense of democracy in the face of rabid insurrection.

Another unforgettable segment is the final scene storming the White House, where the three-term president is reduced in honor and courage. Again, Garland shows how vulnerable we are in the face of determined insurrection.

The genius of Civil War is not taking sides but placing our point of view in the action to witness the danger to justice and democracy such mindlessness as Jan 6 poses to a nation. Although the cinematography can’t compete with, say, Independence Day, it beats it by a country mile in making us face the unthinkable danger we face without the safeguards legitimate authority could provide in times of danger. In a way, I am reminded of the multiple and varied reactions to D W Griffith’s Birth of a Nation.

With a contentious election forthcoming, we would do well to consider whether our choices align with the democracy our Constitution once promised. Civil War gives no answers, but in a masterpiece of pop apocalypse, challenges us to think about the freedom we once took for granted.

Civil War

Director: Alex Garland (Ex Machina)

Screenplay: Garland

Cast: Nick Offerman (Dumb Money), Kirsten Dunst (The Power of the Dog)

Run Time: 1h 45m

Rating: R

John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts NPR’s It’s Movie Time and Cinema Classics as well as podcasts Back Talk and Double Take (recently listed by Feedspot as two of the ten best NPR Movie Podcasts) out of WCBE 90.5 FM, Columbus, Ohio. Contact him at

John DeSando