An America fighting itself in "Civil War": "It's a warning"

America’s darkest chapter has never been far from Hollywood’s vivid imagination. From “Gone With the Wind” to “Glory” to “Lincoln,” movies have brought us the barbarity and the politics of the Civil War. But what if the bloody 19th century conflict were merely our first civil war?

That’s the premise of a new film, “Civil War,” opening this week. It’s an unflinching and relentless look at a nation divided and violent, not in the 1860s, but today.

“This could be us in, pick a year: 2025, 2026, 2024? Is that fair?” asked Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz.

“Hopefully not,” said actress Kirsten Dunst. “But I do think it’s a warning. I do.”

Kirsten Dunst in “Civil War.”


Dunst leads the cast, playing a war photographer who, along with three other journalists, drives from New York to Washington, D.C., hoping to interview the president before rebel forces, led by Texas and California, reach the White House.

“At the heart of all of this, it’s really about humanity and what happens when people stop treating each other like human beings,” Dunst said.

The lack of humanity in a few scenes is shocking, as we follow these reporters along backroads, encountering an America entirely broken: no rules, no decency, and a cold-blooded disregard for human life. 

The English writer-director Alex Garland (whose credits include “Ex Machina” and “Annihilation”) said the reason why his new film is unnerving is that “it’s a film about the product of polarization and division.”

Garland’s story leaves unanswered questions of how the war begins – and to some extent, who the good guys are. We’re left with a movie that’s intentionally vague. He wanted this story seen through the eyes of reporters, even though a colleague told him that was box office poison: “He said, ‘Don’t make a film about journalists. Everybody hates journalists.’ And I thought that was a really interesting thing to say. It’s sort of like saying, ‘Everybody hates doctors.’ Well, you can’t hate doctors, ’cause you need doctors. And actually, we kind of know any healthy country needs journalists. It needs freedom of the press.”

The audience will certainly be talking about the film’s president who, we learn, is serving a third term and has abolished the FBI. He’s played by Nick Offerman, who says the character was not inspired by any commander-in-chief, past or present. 

Nick Offerman as the president in “Civil War.”  


Offerman does say the film offers a warning that, given today’s political climate, Americans need to heed: “Our ego and our history wants to allow us to believe that we’re above such things that, you know, lesser countries around the world may engage in. We’re Americans; you know, we drink the finest cola beverages. We’re immune to such things.”

Garland said, “There’s an underlying truth with everything difficult, which is, nobody’s immune.”

Seeing this happen here is an unsettling experience, one shared by the cast, including Wagner Moura (himself a former journalist) and Cailee Spaeny, who play two of the three reporters traveling with Kirsten Dunst.

Spaeny said, “It was the first time that I felt like the message really went through me. You know, it felt like a gut punch. And I came out of it feeling like I want to take action, you know, that I don’t want it to ever get to this point.” 

Moura said, “Now I’m really making an effort to sit down and listen to people that I disagree [with]. And I was absolutely surprised to see that if you value democracy, if you think that democracy is an important thing, then there’s lots of common ground.” 

“I personally have never felt the way I felt coming out of the theater, and I was in the movie,” said Dunst. “And I was just as shocked. It felt like it was meant to be, and I’ve never felt that way before.”

Washington, D.C., is a war zone in “Civil War.”


For Dunst, that’s saying something. She’s been in movies since she was a kid, landing her first meaty role at 12 opposite Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt in “Interview With a Vampire.” Big teen movies followed – “The Virgin Suicides” and “Bring It On” – then three “Spider-man” films. In 2022, Dunst earned an Oscar nomination for her aching performance in “The Power of the Dog.”

Now 35 years into the business, she knows “Civil War” is unlike anything she’s done before. “I’ve never played a role like this,” she said. “I think that this is one of the most important films that I’ve ever been a part of. I think that it respects the audience and lets them put their own beliefs about what is happening.”

Mankiewicz asked, “What does that mean in this case?”

“I think it’s up to the individual to take whatever their political beliefs are, and they will imprint watching the film what it makes them feel, or whose side is what side,” she replied. “And I think that’s really interesting, and we’ll get a lot of conversations that we need to have happen. And that’s the beautiful thing about art. It’s, like, that’s what you want to be a part of in filmmaking. It’s to push boundaries and give something that no one’s seen before. ‘Cause I haven’t seen a film like this before.”

Whatever the audience projects, it will be with a degree of unease, in a country that has always been comforted by the notion that this could never happen here … not again. 

“Unless we come to our senses,” said Garland, “our polarized, divisive, non-communicative, accusatory state is going to continue, unless we do something about it.”

Offerman said, “I hope as many people see it as possible, and I hope that it helps us slowly trudge ourselves towards trying to find decency in our society, and supporting that, and turning our backs on the forces that make us look in the other direction and can lead us to things like what happens in this movie.”

To watch a trailer for “Civil War,” click on the video player below:

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Story produced by Gabriel Falcon. Editor: Emanuele Secci. 

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