Civil War: A Believable Apocalyptic Flick

I love A24 Movies, and when I heard A24 was making a modern American Civil War film, I was a little perplexed. A24 and Garland make little art house-style movies. Good movies, but not big movies. But it wasn’t the scale of the production that intrigued me. Instead, it was the subject matter. Would this Civil War film be a way to lambast gun owners? Would it be gun owners fighting an authoritarian state? I guess we are a little narcissistic as a culture.

In a surprising twist, the film takes no sides. There are no sides to take because we aren’t presented with sides or much backstory, really. When the trailer dropped, the Texas-California alliance was one of the big things people noticed. The two states are politically very different, so why would they ever become an alliance? In the film, it makes sense because there are no clearly drawn political lines.

map of civil war
The map shows the states and their alliances. Blue is the United States, Red is the Florida Alliance, green is the WF, and yellow is the New People’s Army.

Gun control is never mentioned, and neither is immigration, foreign wars, or any other hot-button current issues. We don’t get much on why the Civil War is even occurring. We know that the President has assumed a third term, violating the 22nd Amendment. He dismantled the FBI and bombed American citizens as the war started. At the start of the film, the war has been raging for 14 months, and there are four major belligerents: the Western Forces of Texas and California, the United States, the New People’s Army, and the Florida Alliance. That’s about all we know by the time the film starts.

Civil War – A Road Trip

Yep, this is a road trip movie. The film follows four reporters: two in the prime of their careers (Wagner Moura and Kirsten Dunst) as they reluctantly tote two other reporters in tow. This includes our still wet-by-the-ears photographer (Cailee Spaeny) and a too-old-to-run and past-his-prime reporter (Stephen McKinley Henderson).

actors civil war
The cast is brilliant.

The crew of four departs New York City en route to Washington, D.C. Their goal is to meet with the President, played by Nick Offerman, for an interview. The President hasn’t given interviews for the entirety of the war, and with the general thought that the Western Forces would hit D.C. soon, they want to get an exclusive interview.

As they travel, we are treated to a series of vignettes that show what life is like in the United States during the war. The film follows the crew through combat, destroyed cities, refugee camps, and more. We are shown violence, death, and more. The film culminates with the crew making it to D.C. and witnessing the United States fighting with the Western Forces.

actor in civil war
The film is more of a roadtrip-style flick.

Throughout the film, we aren’t ever given which side is right, and there are several times when we see combat, and we don’t know who is fighting who or why. In fact, two snipers are facing off in one scene, and it’s explained succinctly when asked who they are and why they are fighting. The sniper says, and I’m just paraphrasing, “He’s trying to shoot me, so I’m trying to shoot him.” Continued questioning just frustrates the sniper, and he insults the reporter.

What I Liked

Dear lord, does Alex Garland know how to create tension? You truly never know what’s going to happen in this movie. Everyone they meet is a potential murderer, and most are well-armed. The combat and violence create an unspoked and brilliant tension.

A short scene with Jesse Plemons playing a psychotic highwayman, soldier, or militia member steals the movie. Everyone gives a solid performance, and it’s a well-acted movie. It’s also visually very creative and good-looking. There is an odd mix of colors that mix bright with combat. We have guys in Hawaiin shirts, our snipers have brightly dyed hair, and the colors continually pop up.

bad guy in civil war
This guy stole the show and ratcheted up the tension.

The sound excels in the movie. Every gunshot is so loud it’s just on the verge of being uncomfortable. The combat scenes are overwhelmingly loud, which lends to the confusion and tension of the combat. Civil War is the only movie outside of Heat to capture the noise of gunfire, and I’d even say it outperforms Heat.

The movie has good pacing. It keeps moving forward and never slows down, but it’s also not flying around at breakneck speeds. Situations have time to languish, and you need to absorb what’s happened and what’s happening. Small moments of the crew driving let things sink in.

What I Didn’t Like

The movie has tons and tons of great moments, interesting environments, and situations, but it never focuses much on the characters. The film has some small arcs, and the young reporter is our eyes. She gets the most arc as she becomes a more experienced war photographer. At the end of the film, Kirsten Dunst’s character seems to get this out-of-nowhere panic-induced breakdown.

We aren’t given much of a reason for this. Throughout the film, she handles pressure well and always keeps a cool head. Then she suddenly can’t keep it together, but then snaps out of it and goes back to war photographer mode. Admittedly, she gets a slight arc that does come back to the beginning of the film and a conversation she had with the young reporter.

Our older reporter, who is typically cautious, does get an opportunity to be brave. The film has little plot, and the characters just don’t get much time. While they are surface-level likable, they get the same treatment as the rest of the world, which means no lore, backstory, or knowledge of what the future has in store.

The Guns of Civil War

Throughout the movie, we mostly see AR-type rifles, with some SAWs, an M240, and a Mk 48. I think I spotted one AK, but the variety of the guns isn’t vast. The rifles are the most common weapon, and while they are all just ARs, they do vary quite a bit, namely in their setups.

We see standard carbines, lots of SBRs, and more. What impressed me most is that the rifle setups are pretty competent. The rifles wear EOTechs and Aimpoints, Surefire weapon lights, a variety of handguards, stocks, and similar modern accessories. The light and optics placement makes sense.

There is a suspicious lack of night vision and reliance on white lights. It’s fair to say not everyone fighting is a traditionally trained soldier. You don’t get a lot of time to notice the plate carriers on most of the troops, but when you do, they are all of the proper height, and they seem to at least have fake plates in the carrier. They have some weight to them.

Worth Seeing?

I enjoyed “Civil War.” It’s ferocious, uncomfortable, and tense, but if you feel something in a film, it’s worth a watch. I suggest seeing it in IMAX or at a theater with a killer sound system. It’s an exciting film, but don’t expect a traditional narrative or deep character study.

Travis Pike is a former Marine Machine Gunner and a lifelong firearms enthusiast. Now that his days of working a 240B like Charlie Parker on the sax are over he's a regular guy who likes to shoot, write, and find ways to combine the two. He holds an NRA certification as a Basic Pistol Instructor and is probably most likely the world's Okayest firearm instructor. He is a simplicisist when it comes to talking about himself in the 3rd person and a self-professed tactical hipster. Hit him up on Instagram, @travis.l.pike, with story ideas.

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