That Brutal, Ferocious Thing: Watching Civil War


I went to see the A24 film Civil War, directed by Alex Garland, on its opening day of April 12th. To be blunt, the film left much to be desired. It was not the prophetic warning I hoped to view in these troubling times. Instead, I found a nearly two-hour collection of speculative fiction vignettes intermingled with the media patting themselves on the back.

The core of the story is the relationship between a veteran war photographer and an upcoming one as they navigate the chaos of this apocalyptic America. It is not a film filled with character or plot development. In truth, you leave the theatre having witnessed a series of war crimes and been asked a set of questions that more often confuse rather than provoke.

Amid the disappointment, I cannot help drawing comparisons to another modern, speculative American Civil War film. Released in 1997, Second Civil War is a largely forgotten HBO original movie. I have only seen it referenced a handful of times in old articles, with a few random clips on YouTube. Yet the story the 1997 film contains puts this 2024 film to shame.

While the current “civil war” film draws on the ambiguity of the situation, the film from 1997 clearly outlines a scenario for the outbreak of a war. In the 1997 film, Idaho is joined by a coalition of states in opposing the settlement of additional immigrants within their borders by the federal government. This standoff results in a series of soul-searching moments among politicians, journalists, and military officials as war tensions rise. This is not the case in A24’s Civil War, which paints a war without any significance or cause.

In A24’s Civil War, the factions are butchering each other for no clear reason. Vague references are made to the disbandment of the FBI and air strikes on American citizens, but no clear cause for which nearly 20 states would take up arms is ever stated. Yet we are asked to assume a cause which would compel suicide bombings and ethnic cleansing on the part of the combatants.

In reality, Civil War is a movie in want of an audience. Unless you are a journalist, I fail to see how this film will inspire any commendable feeling within you, or generate a desire for our organs of democratic governance to forestall the rise of an autocrat and his minions. In many ways, the film does the opposite.

Compare two very similar scenes between the A24’s Civil War and HBO’s Second Civil War. Both scenes involve the summary execution of uniformed combatants. Bound and blindfolded, these men are gunned down by fellow Americans.

In A24’s Civil War, this scene of horror is depicted as nothing more than the natural course of things, as the journalist stars of the film take this butchery as a chance to use up their rolls of film. Mixed with a musical overlay and the executioner elatedly firing a machine gun at the condemned men, it makes the scene take on a sense of righteous justice rather than the horror one is truly witnessing.

Second Civil War from HBO has a far harsher reaction to an identical scene. In this scene, the condemned men are executed on a live news broadcast. No sooner have their bodies hit the ground then one of the news anchors reporting on the broadcast loses their composure, refusing to move on to other stories as the network’s producers demand. Amid a series of justified profanities, she utters the point that nobody around her is able to grasp, “We’re killing our own people!”

HBO’s film is billed as a dark-comedy while A24’s film is described as a dystopian war film. There are light moments in the 2024 film, but for the most part they do not contribute anything to the story. In the 1997 film, the humor mixed among the horrors is the only way to make the film palatable enough for the tastes of the general public.

One aspect of A24’s film I will compliment is the amount of time it spends looking at the impacts of this hypothetical war beyond the enclaves of D.C. and New York City. It shows abandoned infrastructure and inter-community violence in Western Pennsylvania, refugees and towns guarded by armed citizens in West Virginia. This aspect, of showing how a conflict would impact the average people across the country, is one area where the HBO film fails. Yet this one high point is insufficient to redeem the film as a whole.

Another point of issue I had with the production was the accompanying music throughout the film. As in the execution scene, it seems as if the music for the film was chosen mostly to emphasize the “coolness” of the journalist characters. The journalists of the film, flipping out their press badges with the same authority as a silver star in an old west town, are shown as the only real people in this movie. The soldiers, political leaders, and common people are all just plot devices through which they can get their story, photo, or quote. HBO’s film does not use its soundtrack to glorify one particular group, but it does use music to highlight the tragedy of the situation at key points. While A24’s film seeks to glorify the role of the journalist, HBO’s film seeks to show the humanity of both sides in their conflict, and the human failings which drive the conflict.

I must say that I did not want to write this review. I walked into the theatre with high hopes for Mr. Garland’s Civil War. I was hoping it would sober people to the actual horrors that a modern a civil war would entail. There is without a doubt a large segment of the population who are naïve or unaware of the horrors of war. About a month ago, I was seeing another movie in the theatre which was preceded by a trailer for Civil War. Following the trailer, I heard an elderly woman sitting next to me say to her mother and husband, “We need another one of those,” followed quickly by, “We need to take our country back.”

To be a good film, A24’s film would need many revisions, but if I could change only one thing, it would be the moment just after the film ends. Rather than a rock song overlaying the image of a half dozen soldiers posing victoriously over a body like that famous final photo of Pablo Escobar (a particularly ironic choice of image given that Wagner Moura’s other well-known role is playing the drug lord in the series Narcos), I would have had the screen cut to black. Then that often-quoted line from the Iliad would have emerged onto the screen: “Clanless, lawless, and homeless is he who is in love with civil war, that brutal, ferocious thing.”

One could try to argue that A24 and Mr. Garland were not truly trying to make a cautionary warning but instead simply wanted to highlight the importance of journalists in war. That may be, but that was not how the film was marketed or described. Consider its national release date, April 12th. On the morning of April 12th, 1861, South Carolina soldiers opened fire on Fort Sumter.

Image via Flickr


  1. I enjoyed this review quite a bit, but I have a totally different reading of the movie. Take, for example, the question of whether the film glorifies journalists. Without venturing into spoiler territory, I’d point to the final five minutes and how the characters conduct themselves in that sequence. I don’t think one is supposed to come away from that thinking journalists are heroes. I certainly didn’t.

    I also found the lack of specificity around the cause of the fighting to be a feature, not a bug. To me, the movie was intended to show that when a country starts down the path of dehumanizing each other over political differences, there are places that can lead that are horrifying. The specific inciting incident or incidents seem immaterial to that point.

    Again, really enjoyed the review. And like that Civil War seems to lend itself to different interpretations. There do appear to be critics that read the film more like this reviewer and critics who read it more like I did.

  2. “Vague references are made to the disbandment of the FBI”
    The FBI of course is a vile and rogue organization, corrupt from its very beginning, and should be abolished immediately, and it’s mind boggling that “liberals” now think such an obvious fact is something that only “right wing” “fascists” say.

    I don’t see why the best film to watch isn’t just the Ken Burns Civil War, except that nowadays it is viewed as having unacceptably “humanized” Southerners, a sad sign of how disgraceful and childish contemporary political rhetoric and thought has become. But it will be watched and celebrated long after either of these movies are forgotten.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Exit mobile version