The Snap — Civil War

William J Hammon
8 min readApr 26, 2024


If there’s one thing that’s consistent with the works of Alex Garland over the last decade, it’s that much of what we see is open to interpretation. How soon did Ava become fully self-aware and turn the tables in Ex Machina? What really took place beyond the Shimmer in Annihilation? How much of Jessie Buckley’s horror actually happened in Men?

So why not take that idea to its most logical — and extreme — next level? With Civil War, Garland tells arguably the most straightforward story of his career, but ensures that it remains a passionate and horrifying think piece throughout due to the intentional ambiguities he leaves up to his audience. In an age where political and social turmoil appear to be reaching a tipping point, with any number of possibilities for what could happen next, he posits one dire eventuality with a litany of “what if” contexts, filtered through the figurative and literal lens of combat photographers. As people increasingly discard their very humanity, what does it take to be objective, and what can any reasonable person interpret when they see history play out before them?

Garland is careful — and has been since the film was announced — to keep the societal messaging as vague as possible, allowing the audience to project — and hopefully to question — their own political agendas and biases onto the events as they unfold. A lot was made when the first trailer was released about the “Western Forces” in this internal conflict, an alliance between the states of California and Texas. Some online voices opted to dismiss the movie immediately on the absurdity of such a premise, as California is one of the most liberal states in the Union — if not THE most liberal — while Texas plays the same role on the conservative side of the ideological spectrum.

But therein lies the genius hook for the entire project. Garland is daring the public to revolt against his ideas, to denigrate them through fallacious reasoning and separate things into as binary a field as possible, thereby missing the point and proving it at the same time. Because it’s not just that it’s a liberal state and a conservative one coming together in this near future. There are tons of ways to look at the landscape that’s being put forward here. First of all, who’s to say that one state’s philosophy won’t change due to unforeseen circumstances in the coming years? Maybe Texas turns blue or California turns red. Who knows? Or maybe we can consider the fact that out of the nearly 350 million people in this country, 70 million live in one of these two states, meaning 1/5 of the population reside there, and thus could represent a sizeable block if they presented a united front. You can also see signs of modern geopolitics in the way the map plays out, as Texas and California are separated by several “Loyalist States” like Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada, creating a Palestine-esque bifurcated nation. Maybe you can dwell on there being several different factions in this conflict, including the aforementioned units, as well as the “Florida Alliance” (pretty much the entire South except for Texas and the Carolinas) and the “New People’s Army,” which comprises much of the Canadian border states and the Mountain Time Zone.

The point is, there’s always more to consider than just the basic image, especially when you take into account that the various forces don’t really enter into the equation when it comes to the overall plot. The “WF” is the closest to making a move on Washington, DC, and they factor into the climax as an entity, but Garland makes sure that no one’s philosophy is known (apart from the current administration, and even then they’re fascist broad strokes), as the actions speak far louder than the words.

And it’s those actions that define the true crux of the film: the increased dehumanization of the American people, and the species writ large. Sometime in the future, the United States are no longer worthy of that name, as a civil war has broken out among multiple camps. The current President (Nick Offerman, an excellent casting choice for this idea, as he’s a liberal who became a star for playing a libertarian on TV) has instituted martial law, is in his unconstitutional third term, and has designated the press as enemy combatants (one step up from Donald Trump’s “enemy of the people” grandstanding against journalists), meaning the military can basically shoot them on sight. As the battle rages on several fronts, he appears in propagandist television and radio programs assuring the public that the rebel forces will soon be crushed and order will be restored.

In this maelstrom is where we find Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst in a career-best performance), a wartime photographer who has seen enough action to be basically dulled and detached from it all. At a protest in Brooklyn that turns violent, Lee is able to save a young journalist named Jessie Cullen (Cailee Spaeny, following up Priscilla with another excellent turn), who was inspired by Lee’s work to take up her own camera to document the bloodshed, but as her recklessness and lack of preparation demonstrate, she’s still very green. Along with her colleague Joel (Wagner Moura), Jessie, and seasoned reporter Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), Lee makes a road trip to Washington in hopes of an interview and photo op with the President before a planned offensive on July 4th, which would be a symbolic moment for whichever side succeeds. Because the I-95 corridor is shut down due to artillery damage and hostile checkpoints, the quartet must make an end-around through Pittsburgh and West Virginia, adding several hundred miles to the journey, and taking them into even more uncertain territory.

Along the way, there are several stops where Lee teaches Jessie to let go of her fear and hesitation, because things will only get worse the closer they get to the capital. These asides in literal American war zones offer a range of scenarios that further muddy the waters for those trying to paint Garland’s messaging into any kind of corner. Two snipers fire at each other across an abandoned Christmas Fair, neither one knowing or caring about whose team they’re on. Local shit-kickers commandeer a gas station and carwash, armed to the teeth with automatic weapons, torturing two people they call “looters.” Jesse Plemons makes a disturbing uncredited cameo as a militiaman who questions the crew at gunpoint about “what kind” of Americans they are. Resistance fighters and loyalists alike almost delight in posing for Abu Ghraib-style pictures where they flaunt and taunt their kills without mercy. A small town seems to exist in another dimension where they can remain blissfully ignorant of all the mayhem surrounding them, but only because there are armed sentries on every rooftop.

All of these scenes feed into one another seamlessly to show that no matter who wins, there are potentially no “good guys” or “bad guys.” Yes, you can fairly interpret certain moments as being more of an indictment on far-right philosophies like authoritarianism or white supremacy than other political platforms (I admit that I even projected somewhat as I watched, and when I realized I was doing it, that only reinforced how much I needed to properly engage with the material), but there’s no gallant, patriotic alternative that pretends to offer any real solutions, and all involved engage in abhorrent behavior. Lee, Jessie, Joel, and Sammy are just there to observe and report, forcing themselves to take no actions other than to preserve their own lives.

And that’s where this film really shines. Like a combination of Night of the Living Dead and Full Metal Jacket, the production weaves an uneasy tapestry of just how a person dies inside long before they can physically expire. This isn’t humanity reverting to a more savage, animalistic form, but devolving along a different path entirely into a sort of catatonic stasis where they are just numb to human suffering. Garland does this through superb cinematography, airtight editing, and an eerie, otherworldly score from Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow.

The big difference between this film and those cinematic forebears is in the knowledge of the circumstances, or lack thereof. In Night of the Living Dead, while the idea of cannibalistic zombies was strange and new, the viewers and the characters could — for the most part — discern who was a threat. In Full Metal Jacket, we have the entire first half of the film at Parris Island to show how Joker is able to maintain his sense of self throughout Sgt. Hartman’s training and abuse, while Pyle succumbs to it. Then we fast forward to the Tet Offensive and its aftermath to demonstrate how the war saps every ounce of Joker’s empathy until he is finally rendered as a soulless killing machine, a man without fear.

In Civil War, we have no such formative information. Those films used dehumanization as thematic and story points. Here it’s just the beginning. We don’t know what drove states to secede. We don’t know who fired the first shot. We don’t know whose version of events we can believe. We don’t know the true motivations of the various bodies converging on this hellscape of our own homeland. All we can do is guess and conjecture based on what we already know and believe outside the flick before we see it all with our own eyes. Even those who aren’t impressed by this project (it has an 81% rating on Rotten Tomatoes as of this writing, and there have been scores of online blurbs where people have scoffed at the idea of this being an apolitical feature) become part of this central thesis. How the war happened, in Garland’s eyes, is irrelevant. What happens next is all that matters, and that’s what makes this a triumph. In perhaps his most ambitious and haunting idea yet, reality and survival become victims of our species’ spiral into madness. How we fell counts for nothing, but how we rise and tell the story makes all the difference. And in the midst of that chaos, sometimes all we can do is literally see what develops.

Grade: A

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Did you initially have misgivings about a California-Texas alliance? Is your outlook for our country as dystopian as the movie? Let me know! Let me know! Let me know! And remember, you can follow me on Twitter (fuck “X”) and YouTube for even more content!

Originally published at on April 26, 2024.



William J Hammon

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