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Civil War (Christian Movie Review)

About the Film 

“What kind of American are you?” This question is a quote from the film, but sadly it’s not too far-fetched to imagine it being asked in real life. It is no secret that America today is a divided and polarized nation, and tensions seem unlikely to lessen any time soon in this election year. Director Alex Garland has always been a provocative filmmaker, and in Civil War he explores a dystopian nightmare that imagines a worst-case scenario for the country. Somber and difficult to watch, Civil War is an unrelenting cautionary tale that pulls no punches.   

The film’s subject matter and early marketing material suggested the possibility of an action-heavy spectacle, but Civil War is primarily a character-driven story. In fact, much of the larger national scope of the conflict remains ambiguous. Instead, the story focuses on the experiences of a group of journalists as they travel to Washington, DC. Along the way, they glimpse snapshots of how different Americans have been negatively impacted by the war. 

Amongst the protagonists, there’s Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst), an older war journalist who is hardened and weary from a lifetime surrounded by death and war. She is contrasted with Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), a young, aspiring photojournalist who does not yet grasp the gravity of the situation. Her character arc is one of tragically lost innocence as she evolves from naïve to shocked to jaded, the victim of a broken and divided world that’s all she’s ever known.  

Civil War is a well-made movie, but it is not necessarily an “entertaining” one. Is it immersive with intriguing worldbuilding? Sure. Occasionally gripping? Yes, the action sequences—with bullets flying and impressive sound design—are captivating. But I’m not sure Civil War is designed to be “enjoyed.” Instead, the film is presented with an unwaveringly serious tone. The film is a cautionary tale, the equivalent of a political fire and brimstone sermon ala Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” 

Of course, as might be expected in our polarized nation, when a film about such division is released, the inevitable first question many people ask is which “factions” get painted as the heroes and villains? The answer is neither. Despite obviously being a politically charged story, Civil War has a relatively apolitical perspective. Sure, there are plenty of clear echoes of real-world sentiments, and viewers can read between the lines to guess at Garland’s own political bent. Still, for the most part, the film is less focused on pointing accusatory fingers at any specific group of people than it is on providing a sweeping picture of America as a whole, seeming to say, “Who cares what or who might lead to this situation, the result is horrific and must be avoided.” 

Is America on the brink of another civil war? Surely not, despite what clickbait headlines might suggest. But in imagining an exaggerated vision of America’s future, Civil War exposes some of the sentiments that have led to our current polarization. At various times during the film, a voiceover radio broadcast invokes “one nation under God,” and yet the America of Civil War is a nation that appears to have wholly departed from that truth. All that is left is division, dehumanizing hatred, and senseless death. The movie might be a dystopian fantasy tale, but like all good fantasy, there are nuggets of truth for those willing to look.  

On the Surface

For Consideration

Beneath The Surface

Engage The Film

Dehumanization and Desensitization      

Civil War is not a film that requires much shrewd deduction to parse out its intended message or themes. Rather than subtle allusions to provoke thought, the film grabs viewers by the shoulders and violently shakes them, bombarding them with shocking visuals and disturbing moments. The story is fiction, but it is clearly intended to be linked to reality. During the opening moments of the film, there are several short clips of what I believe are real-world riots and violence. By including those visuals, the film suggests that America is tumbling down a slippery slope, and then it imagines what might await us at the bottom of the hill.  

If the film is to be taken as a form of social commentary, then its focus is not necessarily any specific political ideology. Instead, it is a broad warning of the dangers of dehumanization and desensitization. As mentioned above, Jessie is the clearest example of this, functioning almost as a representative for the younger generations. Her relationship with the older and more world-weary Lee probes the question of what kind of world is being left behind for those who come behind us.  

During another scene, as a group of prisoners are executed by a firing squad, a journalist and one of the victorious soldiers excitedly relive the action that led to the capture, numbed to the violence. The film also uses music effectively, juxtaposing upbeat songs with violence to show how desensitized the characters have become.  

There are some allusions to events that led to the conflicts, but it is not always clear why the factions are fighting, only that they are. Political policy can and should be debated, but Civil War shows how empty such disagreements become when people lose sight of the humanity of other people. Scripture teaches that all people are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), and Jesus taught his followers to love their enemies (Luke 6:27).

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