‘Civil War’ 2024 Ending Explained & Film Summary: Why Did The WF Want To Kill The President?


I’d rather not go into why Alex Garland picked America to be the war zone in Civil War, although I can think of more than a couple reasons that might’ve motivated the choice. And I’ll tell you why I think that discussion would be a waste of time. In Garland’s Civil War, starring a breathtaking Kirsten Dunst and a shockingly effective Wagner Moura, the setting is a terrarium of pain and death presented and observed with near-unflinching neutrality. Desensitized neutrality is mandatory in war photojournalism. In the story of Lee, Joel, Jessie, and Sammy chasing a scoop on the civil war that’s broken out and a denial-driven fascist in the Oval Office, America is merely a war hawk. It could’ve been any other place, any other time. And the only thing that’d remain relevant is the frustrating futility of it all.

Spoiler Alert

What Happens in the Film?

Not much is particularized about the war that’s devastated the self-proclaimed paragon of democracy—the United States of America. Who knows if it was the inefficacy or the violence perpetuated by the President (played by Nick Offerman) that’s led things to such a state that secessionist forces have resorted to militarized revolt? For some odd reason, Texas and California, two states that usually don’t see eye-to-eye in real-world politics, have banded into the Western Forces. Seasoned war photojournalist Lee and her colleague Joel are preparing themselves to take what NY Times veteran journalist Sammy calls a suicide mission to Washington, DC. While there’s plenty of gung-ho enthusiasm coursing through the veins of the country at war with itself, Lee and Joel have paid their dues as war correspondents for long enough, and they’re eyeing something bigger than the incessant fatality of war. Sammy’s either not taken or come out of retirement. And this old man who doesn’t walk well enough to want to get in the thick of it in Charlottesville, hops in the car and heads west with Lee, Joel, and rookie photojournalist Jessie. 

How does Jessie impress Lee?

You can imagine why Lee would be hesitant about Jessie joining them on this journey. Lee’s been too close to the hellish reality of the frontlines and knows what a dangerous gamble it is for photojournalists. The country they’re in now is a place where a group of people desperate for water get blown up to pieces. There’s not just bullets and explosives; there’s only bullets and explosives. It’s practically a localized apocalyptic scenario that they drive through. There’s no shortage of journalistic fire in Jessie, but what she lacks is the phlegmatic detachment absolutely necessary in the field she’s looking to flourish in. While it doesn’t faze Lee as much to see two men, bloody and gasping, soon to be shot by their gun-wielding captors at a gas station, Jessie’s way too empathetic to keep her cool. By asking the gunman to pose with the victims, Lee doesn’t just neutralize the situation; she also gives Jessie her first important lesson in war photojournalism. It’s no place for ethical debates. Jessie’s grown up idolizing Lee and her namesake, Lee Miller, the magnificent woman who went from the life of a vogue model to that of a war correspondent in WW2, photographing the horrors of the concentration camps in Dachau.

In Civil War, Jessie’s admiration for Lee’s work prompts the mention of a certain Antifa massacre that made her the youngest Magnum photographer. This is one of the many instances in which Civil War proves its sincerity to the story it’s telling. A journalist’s job isn’t to pick sides. And since the film is about people like Lee, it picks a neutral ground for its anecdotes, too. So we don’t know which massacre they’re talking about. Much like we don’t know if it was the far-left or the reactionaries who fired the first shot. But then again, while we do see snippets of a President who looks to be a combination of the worst Presidents in the history of America, Civil War isn’t exactly an advocate for WF’s cause either. Jessie might’ve started as a jittery rookie, but by the time they got to that building where they got caught in the crossfire between the state military and the WF militia, Jessie’d learned a thing or two about the kind of courage and stoicism required in her line of work. The picture she clicked of a man on the brink of death as his comrade stuffed gauze in his leaking gunshot wound was the reason behind that smile on Lee’s face. That was approval, admiration, and a dash of hope that Jessie indeed has what it takes. 

How does Sammy die?

Civil War finds America divided into factions, not just along ideological lines but in the way people cope with the war, too. There’s an almost dream-like patch that their car goes through where life has retained its normalcy and its joys. Things are eerily normal in this place that Jessie refers to as the twilight zone. But as Sammy’s experienced eyes have noticed, this slice of heaven is being protected by armed men on the rooftop. He reads the longing for this peace in Lee’s face and quickly reminds her that they’re not the kind of people who’d be content with that. They seek the thrill of the conflict, so much so that Joel gets the rush of a lifetime out of it. On their way forward, there’s another trippy patch of road where the juxtaposition of the remnants of festivities and a dead man lying on the road makes it almost surreal. As Joel seeks answers from the men shooting at someone who’s also shooting at them, the wretched pointlessness of the war is all that he finds. The Americans in this dystopian landscape have been fighting for so long that why they’re fighting and what they’re fighting for have become irrelevant. All that remains is war, just for the sake of it. And you can see why that’d leave people unprotected against bloodthirsty maniacs like the unnamed man who captures Jessie and Joel’s journalist friend Bohai.

When Lee, Joel, and Tony come to their rescue, this man’s questions about where they’re from certainly paint him as a white supremacist. He’s killed enough people to fill a huge grave, so he probably means to wipe out the entirety of Lee’s group. But just the fact that he shoots Tony and Bohai, the journalists from Hong Kong, without skipping a beat is proof that he has it out for non-Americans. This is likely Civil War‘s way of actualizing the horror that’d come to be if America’s jingoism is allowed to thrive unchecked. If it does go as bad as it’s gone in Civil War, there’ll be more than a handful of these ultra-nationalist sociopaths gunning people down without any repercussions. While saving Lee, Jessie, and Joel from this formidable gunman, Sammy is fatally wounded and loses his life just before they’re about to reach the WF base in Charlottesville. Death must be an odd sensation for people who’ve seen it all their lives. It isn’t that Lee wasn’t completely shattered by Sammy’s death. But considering that looking for the silver lining in such a tragedy is all they can do, Lee knows how to comfort a heartbroken Jessie. Sammy didn’t know when to quit. And in some corner of his mind, he must’ve known that there could be a stray bullet with his name on it. Now that the US military has surrendered to WF, Joel projects his disappointment as his frustration over Sammy’s death going in vain. At the end of the day, though, Sammy’s met an end that’s befitting his journey and his love for the job. And how could it have been a purposeless death when he died saving the people he cared about?

What is the significance of Lee’s death?

All in all, Jessie couldn’t have asked for a more thorough and hands-on course on war photojournalism. She’s come a long way. Lee’s been both the perfect exemplar and mentor to Jessie. Sure, she didn’t handhold the newbie through it. But just by letting Jessie shadow her as she maneuvered her way through nerve-wracking situations where death’s just one wrong step away, Lee’s given her a comprehensive masterclass on the dos and don’ts of war photography. From telling her about Kevlar jackets to helping her as she gradually got desensitized to the horror, Lee’s been the most stable guide through the dangerous road of Jessie’s professional growth. And the lesson bore fruit when they were caught up in the gunfire at the winter carnival. While Joel was struggling to process the banality of the war that ravaged America, Jessie could aim her camera at the gunmen for the perfect shot.

In Civil War‘s ending sequence, the state military’s surrender left Washington, DC vulnerable to WF’s ambush. Lee and Joel’s goal of interviewing the President was out of the window. But following WF’s heavily armored troops through the destruction of the Lincoln Memorial and the siege of the White House was bound to get acutely intense. Mirroring the rebel army’s move to avoid being shot or blown apart, Jessie was overcome by an odd mix of feelings that was foreshadowed in an earlier scene. While talking about Sammy’s death, Jessie told Lee that she was never more terrified but never felt more alive either. So, the daring defiance of caution that drives Jessie as she photographs the climactic moment of the war is her ascension to the next level of photojournalism. Whereas Lee, the one who’s been putting up a strong face all this while, slowly crumbles under grief and PTSD. The thing is, Lee’s resilience is in no way an indication of her invulnerability. She often gets numbing flashes of traumatizing deaths she’s photographed. She’s taught Jessie more than she would’ve learned otherwise. But she hasn’t had the time to teach her caution. When WF was heading to the Oval Office, all Jessie could think about was getting that perfect shot. She took a fatal step toward an opening in a situation where people were being shot on sight. And to save her life, Lee sacrifices hers, marking the point where their stories come full circle. Lee saved Jessie’s life when she first met her, and an explosion followed a riot over water rations. And now she’s saved her life yet again. To harden Jessie and instill the necessary indifference in her, Lee once told her that she’d photograph her death if she were to be shot or blown up. And in the end, with the tables turned, Jessie does what Lee would’ve done and would’ve wanted her to do. Jessie photographs Lee’s death. She didn’t let the questions of morality crowd her mind. It was, after all, Lee herself who taught her that a journalist’s job is just to record so that people can ask questions. 

Why does WF kill the President?

Now, this is a film that doesn’t bother itself with a comprehensive backstory. We don’t know what the people of WF wanted before being disappointed by the head of the state and resorting to an armed resurrection. But the President we’ve seen in fleeting glimpses doesn’t seem like someone who’s made constructive efforts to stop the war. The Civil War waged against his inefficacy had crushed the country’s economy to the point where the dollar was of little value. The people at the gas station Lee and her group stopped at preferred Canadian currency over dollars. The Trump-like, obnoxious denial is palpable in the President’s speech, as he claims that he’s expecting the greatest victory in American military history. He was exasperatingly patronizing as he called for WF’s surrender, talking of unity in a country breaking apart from within. But again, we hardly know the man except for the image conjured up by the anecdotes we hear in passing. And from the questions discussed between Sammy and Joel, the ones Joel was supposed to ask the President had circumstances been different, paint him as the man responsible for aggravating the conflict to its worst. But this is not a formidable man. The President is not someone Joel can expect sensational rebuttals from. In Sammy’s wise words, history’s most notorious dictators were seldom sensational. And if we’re to believe that the President in Civil War is not too dissimilar to Mussolini and Ceausescu, we can imagine why WF wouldn’t be interested in negotiating a safe surrender. Dictators and death by execution go hand in hand.

During Civil War‘s ending, WF laid waste to the last remnants of the US military and the Secret Service and held the President at gunpoint. Had he actually been in one of those limousines that were attacked outside the White House, Joel couldn’t have gotten that quote from the President. Facing his imminent death, all the President could utter were words of desperation. But that was enough for Joel. His journey wasn’t futile after all. And as for Jessie, well, she got the most groundbreaking scoop of all. Her camera captured the moment the insurrectionists put a bullet in the President’s chest. Had Lee been alive, this probably would’ve been her shot. But she would’ve wanted Jessie to be the one to have clicked that historical moment. And then there’s that picture Jessie clicked of the WF militia circled around the dead President. Smiling like hunters in photographs with their trophy kill. 

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Lopamudra Mukherjee
Lopamudra Mukherjee
In cinema, Lopamudra finds answers to some fundamental questions of life. And since jotting things down always makes overthinking more fun, writing is her way to give this madness a meaning.

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