Civil War, Explained: What The Movie Is Really Trying To Say

Civil War, the near-future dystopia film from director Alex Garland, was steeped in controversy before it even premiered. The reveal of part of the premise – that, in a new American Civil War, California and Texas had teamed up to create the ‘Western Forces’ – confused many who had initially been excited to hear that there was going to be a new release from the Annihilation director. But it turns out that the film and the conflicts it’s actually most interested in exploring aren’t at all what people had been expecting. While it certainly is a ‘war film’, the specific civil war in question isn’t the point so much as the framing for the themes the story actually seeks to unravel. So what was Garland really trying to say with Civil War? Let’s take a closer look at the film to analyze what it’s really about.


The titular civil war is of course what initially piqued most people’s interest, given how topical it is in America’s current climate. There was the initial confusion over the way the regional factions had apparently divided themselves in this war, and then when the film premiered audiences were met with a new point of confusion: the film doesn’t really explain much about the war at all. So what do we learn, and why did Garland deliberately keep things vague?

In the opening of the film, we are given some information to understand the world we’re being dropped into: the American president (played by Nick Offerman) has become a dictator, refusing to step down after the end of his second term. We learn that he had apparently bombed US cities and killed journalists in his quest to get an iron grip on power. All of this caused the already splintering country to fracture, with various regions joining forces – much of the South creating the ‘Florida Alliance’, the northwest states forming the ‘New People’s Army’, Texas and California joining to become the ‘Western Forces’, and the rest of the country remaining as Loyalist states. The how and why of these divisions, and the beginning of the war itself, aren’t ever explained in the film, and aren’t really something it’s interested in unpacking. Things are kept deliberately vague so as to keep the focus on the real, specific human story the film really wants to focus on instead of getting lost in the weeds of battle strategies and the bureaucracy of war. The film instead seeks to stay on the ground and in the moment – we don’t begin at the flashpoint, but in a country that is already dealing with the consequences of this war.

“I think this film really shows how delicate our democracy is.” - Kirsten Dunst (Lee Smith), Late Night with Seth Meyers

The film desires to take scenes we see on our screens of events in other countries – war and terror and tragedy – and transplant them into American society. It’s easy to become detached from these chaotic things when only ever witnessing them at a remove – always just as things happening to someone else in some place far away – and so Civil War falls into the tradition of bringing these events home in an attempt to shock viewers into rethinking this state of mind. From Children of Men to 28 Days Later (which Garland himself wrote) and beyond, this kind of filmmaking can serve as a way to open audiences eyes to the fact that things like this very much can happen in western countries that think they’re “safe” from these kinds of events.

The film’s choice to remain vague about the alliances and the reasoning behind them is useful for making it more universally accessible, but has also come up against some legitimate criticism for how it ignores so many very real issues that provide the spark behind these kinds of fissures in society, like racism and climate change. But in a way this actually does fit in with the theme of the film – because this flattening of cause and effect is pretty much exactly what happens to every non-western conflict that gets splayed across the news. The reasoning behind choices, the long-standing conflicts that bubbled over, the problems that were long ignored before reaching their breaking point, are often all sanded down into more ‘easily digestible’ soundbites about vague ‘regional conflicts.’ And so seeing a conflict of this scale in the United States framed the same way will hopefully lead some audience members who hadn’t ever noticed this narrative shaping taking place in the news to reconsider how readily they just accept whatever they hear filtered to them through these kinds of lenses.

“It’s really about what happens when people don’t communicate, and what happens to humanity.” - Kirsten Dunst (Lee Smith), The Kelly Clarkson Show

In addition to the minutiae of the war being placed outside of the story’s main narrative, the violence of the war is in its own way put at a remove. It’s not that we don’t see violence, but that it isn’t gory Hollywood violence made into spectacle, but instead simple, close brutality that feels more real. As Jamelle Bouie wrote in his review for the New York Times, “Part of what makes the carnage here feel incessant and palpably realistic is that Garland, whose visual approach is generally unfussy, doesn’t embellish the violence, turning it into an ornament of his virtuosity. Instead, the violence is direct, at times shockingly casual and unsettling, so much so that its unpleasantness almost comes as a surprise.”

The film keeps its scope tight, not zooming out to try to show the totality of war, but instead zooming in on just a small handful of people putting themselves in the heart of the destruction: journalists.


Given that the thing the film seems most interested in is how one becomes desensitized to the horrors of the world, focusing on war journalists makes perfect sense. Garland has always been interested in exploring the gray morality of regular people put into extraordinary situations – from his own films like Annihilation and Ex Machina, to his screenplays for Never Let Me Go and 28 Days Later, and even all the way back to his book The Beach (which was eventually adapted into a film itself.) Here, the focus is on a pack of journalists attempting to drive to DC and interview and photograph the President. Kirsten Dunst stars as Lee, a war photojournalist with a hardened shell. She’s joined by her colleague, Joel; her mentor, veteran journalist Sammy; and Jessie, an inexperienced but ambitious young photographer. Everyone has their own reason for being willing to go on such a dangerous journey; all, to some degree, to capture the truth and share it – as Lee at one point notes, her job is to capture the events so that other people can make their own judgements about what’s happening. But they all have separate, internal drivers, too. Lee feels compelled to continue on her quests to capture the truth – any time she slows down she can feel the walls of the trauma from her past experiences closing in on her. Joel wants the story at all costs. Sammy feels the need to uncover more. And Jessie wants to prove to herself that she has what it takes to be a real photojournalist.

“I just felt like the war correspondents I researched were just very much there to tell the truth and no one is really performing in any way – everything is very real, and immediate, and they’re risking their lives.” - Kirsten Dunst (Lee Smith), Late Night with Seth Meyers

Garland uses these characters to show how desensitization can take over in different ways. We see it through a critical light in some cases – like when the journalists are all chatting rather relaxedly about the ongoing events in a hotel lobby while complaining about the wifi. But we also see why this level of remove is necessary to be able to do their jobs. When they’re in the field, they are in the very middle of the danger – with nothing to protect them from the external dangers or the psychological damage of what they’re witnessing. Putting up walls between themselves and what’s happening on the other side of their lens is the only way they can keep going out and capturing more. With Lee, we see how this begins to break a person down over time. Her PTSD symptoms become more pronounced and impossible to ignore as the group nears DC, reaching points where she’s paralyzed in the field. On the opposite end of the spectrum is young Jessie, who begins the film unable to compartmentalize what she’s experiencing, but by the end has started to become desensitized as she experiences more and more carnage.

Journalist Katie Way wrote in her review for Hell Gate, “I’ve never been anything close to a combat journalist, but I have, during the course of my work, spoken to people in desperate, hopeless situations in order to produce a deliverable for my job that could, possibly, fingers crossed, make the subject’s life a little better through the power of things like “accountability” and “witness.” Then I’ve hung up the phone, or turned my voice recorder off, or clicked my laptop shut, and gone back to my safe and pleasant life with someone else’s pain rattling around in my head for a little while, until I eventually finished my article and moved on. I think someone behind “Civil War” understands how mercenary this transaction sometimes feels.”

The film seeks to connect to this idea even for those of us who aren’t journalists – to lead us to unpack the way we, too, have become desensitized – through choice or necessity – to the horrors that are happening in the world around us. Throughout the film, as the various photographers capture photos, we see the moments frozen on screen – highlighting the way that when we see these kinds of photos on the news, we’re only getting one small frame of the larger picture of what really happened in that moment. When we do try to keep up with the news, it can start to feel like we might have a handle on the reality of what’s happening in these situations, but as Civil War makes clear, there is always so much more going on beneath the surface that we can’t see. There’s no way for any of us to ever truly absorb, or even really begin to grasp, the full reality of every conflict and major event happening around the world, but this film reminds us how important it is to try to remain aware and to seek out the truth as much as possible.


The film ends with Lee, Joel, and Jessie reaching the White House with the Western Forces. Early on in the film, Jessie had asked Lee if she would take photos of her dying, to which Lee responded in the affirmative. This comes back full circle near the end as Lee, jumping in front of Jessie to save her from incoming bullets, is captured dying through Jessie’s lens. Over the course of the film, the closed off Lee had begun taking Jessie under her wing and mentoring her, just as Sammy had done for her. And in the same way that Sammy sacrificed himself to save Lee, Lee does the same for Jessie. Instead of picking up her camera and taking the shot of Jessie’s demise, she instead chose to sacrifice herself so that this new voice may continue on to capture the truth.

As with every other death in the film, the world keeps moving even in the shock and trauma. Jessie and Joel follow the Western Forces all the way to the Oval Office, where they find the President hiding under his desk. While in reality he would more likely be hidden away somewhere in a supermax bunker, this location allows the film to continue on with its visual metaphor – this isn’t all just happening somewhere, it’s happening in America, in one of the most well known rooms in the country.

“Particularly, toward the end of the film, I wanted the audience, hopefully having gone through a compelling, engaging story, to suddenly feel a really strong sense of perversion.” - Alex Garland (director), The Daily Show

The President pleads for his life, but there is only a brief pause in which Joel asks for a quote (and then decides that the president’s pleas are good enough) before the Western Forces shoot him as Jessie takes photographs. In the end, we see Jessie’s face, changed by her journey but also seemingly well aware that this isn’t the end. There were no real ‘good guys’ here, so just because someone else is in charge now doesn’t mean that things will be back to normal or even changing for the better. As Bouie noted in his review, “Hollywood’s longstanding, deeply American imperative for happy endings maintains an iron grip on movies, even ostensibly independent productions. There’s no such possibility of that in “Civil War.”” There are no happy endings in war – only the carnage left in its wake and the trauma borne of its brutality.

Civil War certainly isn’t a perfect film, but it does do a good job with its central investigation of desensitization and the ways people deal with it – or don’t.