Civil War is a 2024 dystopian thriller film[6] written and directed by British author Alex Garland, starring Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, Cailee Spaeny, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Sonoya Mizuno and Nick Offerman. The plot follows a team of war journalists traveling from New York City to Washington, D.C. during a fictional civil war fought across the United States between an authoritarian federal government of unstated party affiliation and several secessionist regional factions, to interview the President before rebels take the capital city.

Civil War
Two soldiers are positioned on the Statue of Liberty's torch, which has been turned into a makeshift fighting position.
Theatrical release poster
Directed byAlex Garland
Written byAlex Garland
Produced by
Starring
CinematographyRob Hardy
Edited byJake Roberts
Music by
Production
companies
Distributed by
Release dates
  • March 14, 2024 (2024-03-14) (SXSW)
  • April 12, 2024 (2024-04-12) (United States and United Kingdom)
Running time
109 minutes[1]
Countries
  • United Kingdom
  • United States
LanguageEnglish
Budget$50 million[2][3]
Box office$114.5 million[4][5]

Principal photography began in Atlanta, Georgia in 2022, with production moving to London later in the year. Civil War premiered at South by Southwest on March 14, 2024, and was theatrically released in the United States by A24 and in the United Kingdom by Entertainment Film Distributors on April 12, 2024. With a budget of $50 million, Civil War is A24's most expensive film to date.[2] The film has grossed over $114 million worldwide, becoming A24's second highest-grossing film, and received generally positive reviews from critics.

Plot

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A civil war has engulfed the United States. An authoritarian federal government, led by a third-term president, is embattled by secessionist movements. Despite the president claiming victory is imminent, it is widely expected that Washington, D.C. will be reached by the "Western Forces" (WF) led by Texas and California. After surviving a suicide bombing in New York City, jaded veteran war photographer Lee Smith and journalist colleague Joel meet with their mentor Sammy to share their plan to interview the isolated president. While trying to dissuade them from heading to the capital, Sammy joins them to reach the frontline at Charlottesville, Virginia. The next morning, Lee finds Joel has allowed a young aspiring photojournalist whom Lee encountered at the bombing, Jessie Cullen, to join them.

After departing the city, the group stops at a gas station protected by armed men. Jessie explores a nearby car wash, where she finds the men torturing two alleged looters. One of the guards follows Jessie, but Lee defuses the situation by taking a photo of the man posing with his victims. Later, Jessie berates herself for being too scared to take photos.

Following an overnight stop near ongoing fighting, the group documents combat the next day as secessionist militiamen successfully assault a loyalist-held building. Lee recognizes Jessie's potential as a war photographer and begins to mentor her, while Jessie photographs the secessionists executing prisoners. The group spends the night at a refugee camp before passing through a small town where, under watchful guard, residents attempt to live in blissful ignorance of the war.

Later, they are caught in a sniper battle amid the remains of a Christmas fair. Nearby snipers mock Joel's questioning what side they are fighting for or against, instead surmising the situation as killing those trying to kill them. Jessie's nerve and photography skills improve as she becomes increasingly desensitized to violence. Jessie asks if Lee would photograph Jessie being killed, to which Lee responds in the affirmative.

While driving, the four encounter two Hongkonger reporters they know, Tony and Bohai. Tony and Jessie switch vehicles before Bohai drives off ahead with Jessie in his car. The others catch up to find the pair held at gunpoint by unknown uniformed militia who are burying civilians in a mass grave. Sammy stays behind as the other three approach to attempt to negotiate their release, but the leader of the militia executes both Bohai and Tony for not being "American". The others are saved by Sammy after he rams the group's truck into members of the militia, but is mortally wounded in doing so.

Traumatized, the remaining three arrive at the Charlottesville WF base and find most of the remaining loyalists have surrendered, leaving Washington, D.C. undefended outside of fanatical remnants of the armed forces and Secret Service. Joel drunkenly lashes out at what he views as Sammy’s pointless death, while Lee tries to console Jessie that Sammy would’ve liked to die on the job. Lee finds herself unable to document Sammy’s death, quickly deleting a photo she took of his body.

The trio embed themselves with the WF as they assault D.C., where Jessie repeatedly endangers herself during fighting to capture photographs, while Lee struggles with combat fatigue. When the WF breach the White House's fortified perimeter, the presidential limousine flees but is quickly intercepted and its occupants are killed. Understanding it to be a distraction, the trio instead heads inside with five WF soldiers.

Advancing though the largely-abandoned building, an abortive attempt by the few remaining Secret Service agents still guarding the president to negotiate his surrender and safe passage turns into a firefight. Jessie steps into the line of fire while taking photos, capturing Lee's death as she pushes Jessie to safety. Jessie unemotionally continues into the Oval Office, watching soldiers drag the president from under his desk and prepare to execute him summarily. Joel momentarily stops them to get a quote from the president, who replies, "Don't let them kill me." Satisfied, Joel stops delaying the soldiers, while Jessie photographs smiling WF soldiers posing with the president's corpse.

 
Map depicting the division of the United States in the film
  Loyalist states (United States)
  Western Forces
  Florida Alliance
  New People's Army

Cast

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Additional cast members include Tim James as the looter tortured by Pete and Eddie and Jared Shaw, Justin Garza, Brian Philpot, and Tywaun Tornes as the Western Forces soldiers who join the sergeant in storming the White House. Jesse Plemons, Dunst's real-life husband, makes an uncredited appearance as a racist[9] ultranationalist militant who holds the journalists at gunpoint.[10][11]

Production

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Development and casting

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In January 2022, Deadline reported that Alex Garland had signed on to write and direct the film for A24 with DNA Films co-producing. Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, Stephen McKinley Henderson and Cailee Spaeny were confirmed to star.[12] In April, Karl Glusman was announced[by whom?] as part of the cast.[13] In a May interview with The Daily Telegraph, Garland described the film as a companion piece to his 2022 film Men, and said it is "set at an indeterminate point in the future—just far enough ahead for me to add a conceit—and serves as a sci-fi allegory for our currently polarized predicament". In the same interview, Sonoya Mizuno was revealed as part of the cast, having appeared in all of Garland's previous films.[14]

Jesse Plemons, Dunst's husband, was cast in the uncredited role at Dunst's suggestion after the originally cast actor became unavailable a few days before shooting began. Garland called Plemons' availability "a stunning bit of good luck."[10][11]

Filming

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Principal photography began in Atlanta on March 15, 2022.[15][16] By May, production had moved to London.[17] The production budget for Civil War was $50 million, making it A24's most expensive film.[2] The movie was shot partially on the prosumer DJI Ronin 4D camera.[18][19] The film's Washington D.C.-based finale required months of planning with Alex Garland and cinematographer Rob Hardy holding a series of roundtable discussions with production designer Caty Maxey, VFX supervisor David Simpson,[20] military supervisor Ray Mendoza and stunt coordinator Jeff Dashnaw.[21][22]

In a March 2024 interview with The Guardian, Garland stated that after Civil War, he intends to step back from directing and focus only on writing.[23]

Post-production

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Film editor Jake Roberts and sound editor Glenn Freemantle[24] re-team with Alex Garland, as does VFX supervisor David Simpson with Framestore.

Release

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The film's world premiere at South by Southwest

Civil War had its world premiere at South by Southwest on March 14, 2024, with favourable reactions from the audience and to positive reviews from the critics.[25][26]

The film was previously scheduled to be released on April 26, 2024.[27][28] It was screened at the BFI IMAX in London on April 11, 2024, and received a wide release on April 12, 2024, in the United States by A24 and in the United Kingdom by Entertainment Film, with engagements in IMAX and Dolby Cinema.[29][30][31] The film will be released in mainland China on June 7, 2024.[32]

It was released through video on demand on May 24, 2024.[33]

Marketing and AI controversy

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On April 17, 2024, A24 promoted the film on Instagram by posting five images created by artificial intelligence (AI), each showing a different American city in postapocalyptic disarray.

The images were criticized for inaccurately depicting certain cityscapes: The AI-generated image of Chicago wrongfully depicted the Marina City apartment complex, with the buildings depicted as being separated by a non-existent island on the Chicago River. In real life, the buildings are located directly next to each other.[34][35]

A source connected to the film confirmed to The Hollywood Reporter that they were "AI images inspired by the movie. The entire movie is a big 'what if' and so we wanted to continue that thought on social — powerful imagery of iconic landmarks with that dystopian realism."[36][37][38]

Reception

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Box office

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As of June 13, 2024, Civil War has grossed $68.7 million in the United States and Canada and $45.8 million in other territories, for a worldwide total of $114.5 million.[4][5]

In the United States and Canada, the film was projected to gross $18–24 million from 3,838 theaters (the widest-ever R-rated release by an independent studio) in its opening weekend.[39] The film made $10.8 million on its first day, including $2.9 million from Thursday night previews (a record for an A24 release). It went on to debut to $25.7 million, surpassing Hereditary as the biggest opening weekend in A24's history as well as the studio's first film to top the box office.[3] The opening weekend audience skewed male at 63%, while 57% of attendees were between ages 18–34. IMAX contributed over 16% of the opening weekend gross, with the main reasons given for seeing the film being its subject matter, the action, and a general interest in indie films (each grouping made up a third of the audience, with the former narrowly higher).[40]

In its second weekend the film made $11.1 million (a 56% drop), remaining in first place, before falling to fourth place in its third weekend with $7 million.[41][42]

Performance outside North America

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Commentators noted that, despite the film's inherently U.S.-centric subject matter, Civil War performed well in several markets outside the United States. This includes the United Kingdom, where it grossed $7.9 million as of May 19, as well as the Netherlands, where it reached ticket sales of $750,000. The film additionally opened in first place at the box office in Brazil, Spain, Belgium, Finland and Portugal.[43]

Critical response

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Kirsten Dunst at the film's world premiere. Her performance was widely praised, even by the film's detractors.[44]

Following the SXSW premiere, review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes noted that critics called the film "a gorgeously shot cautionary tale full of big ideas and a fantastic performance by Kirsten Dunst, but it may surprise some viewers". Critics praised the "beauty and intensity of the dystopian drama" while noting its "potential for controversy and disappointment" due to the effectiveness of its messages.[44] On the site, 81% of 358 critics' reviews are positive, with an average rating of 7.6/10. The website's critical consensus reads: "Tough and unsettling by design, Civil War is a gripping close-up look at the violent uncertainty of life in a nation in crisis."[45] Metacritic, which uses a weighted average, assigned the film a score of 75 out of 100, based on 64 critics, indicating "generally favorable" reviews.[46] Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "B–" on an A+ to F scale, while those polled by PostTrak gave it a 76% overall positive score, with 53% saying they would definitely recommend it.[3] Screen Rant attributed the film's depiction of warfare and Garland's directorial choices, such as the use of hand-held camera footage, as the reasons why its reception was positive.[47]

In a positive review, Peter Debruge of Variety wrote: "Garland's the last person to suggest a group hug. As statements go, his powerful vision leaves us shaken, effectively repeating the question that quelled the L.A. riots: Can we all get along?"[48] Matt Zoller Seitz, writing for RogerEbert.com, compared Civil War to films about "Western journalists covering the collapse of foreign countries", such as The Year of Living Dangerously and Welcome to Sarajevo, ultimately praising the film as "furiously convincing and disturbing".[49]

Lovia Gyarkye of The Hollywood Reporter also gave the film a positive review, writing: "With the precision and length of its violent battle sequences, it's clear Civil War operates as a clarion call. Garland wrote the film in 2020 as he watched cogs on America's self-mythologizing exceptionalist machine turn, propelling the nation into a nightmare. With this latest film, he sounds the alarm, wondering less about how a country walks blindly into its own destruction and more about what happens when it does."[6] Manohla Dargis of The New York Times echoed the sentiment, writing, "Rarely have I seen a movie that made me so acutely uncomfortable or watched an actor's face that, like Dunst's, expressed a nation's soul-sickness so vividly that it felt like an X-ray."[50]

Some critics had mixed reactions. The Washington Post's Amy Nicholson described the film as "coldly, deliberately incurious about the combatants and the victims," but also said "the film feels poetically, deeply true, even when it's suggesting that humans are more apt to tear one another apart for petty grievances than over a sincere defense of some kind of principles."[51][52]

Valerie Complex of Deadline Hollywood offered negative comments, saying: "The script's utilization of characters of color as conduits for brutality needed to be explored further. ... Ultimately, Civil War feels like a missed opportunity. The director's vision of a fractured America, embroiled in conflict, holds the potential for introspection on our current societal divisions. However, the film's execution, hampered by thin characterization, a lackluster narrative and an overreliance on spectacle over substance, left me disengaged."[53]

Johnny Oleksinski of the New York Post observed: "Civil War's shtick is that it's not specifically political. For instance, as the US devolves into enemy groups of secessionist states, Texas and California have banded together to form the Western Forces. That such an alliance could ever occur is about as likely as [a] Sweetgreen/Kentucky Fried Chicken combo restaurant."[54] Eisa Nefertari Ulen, writing for The Hollywood Reporter, also found that the film, despite being "otherwise solid," was partially missing its point, stating, "Casablanca endures because it spoke to a moment as 'crazy and mixed-up' as this one, and nudged the country away from its isolationist inaction. Civil War does not resonate like that classic, because it does not explicitly address this moment. We as a people cannot fix a problem we cannot name."[55]

Stephanie Zacharek of Time observed: "Civil War has the vibe of your standard desolate zombie movie with a modern American backdrop, but it's far less effective than your average George A. Romero project: sometimes a B movie with a sense of humor about itself says more about a nation's despair than an overserious, breast-beating one. ... Do we really need a movie to invent, and rub our noses in, the possibility of a bleaker future?"[56]

The film received both praise and criticism for its approach to contemporary political themes, including concerns of democratic decline and increased political polarization.[57][58][59]

See also

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References

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