Explained: The Powerful and Puzzling Ending of ‘Civil War’

Kirsten Dunst standing in one of the scenes of Alex Garland's 'Civil War' movie. —A24

Writer and director Alex Garland is mostly known for consistently working with stories and concepts that have been eerily relevant in our contemporary society in such a way that it almost looks like a prophecy, even though they are categorised as “sci-fi.”

For example, Garland brought a world to viewers that was ravaged by a deadly virus with his groundbreaking zombie flick “28 Days Later,” which has striking similarities to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In his fictional space opera “Sunshine,” he depicted the devastating realities of climate change long before it became a concern, and in “Dredd,” he tackled the issue of police violence.

He not only creates movies for entertainment, but his cinematic narratives also push boundaries, raise questions, challenge societal norms, and address taboos.

For instance, with his sci-fi thriller “Ex Machina,” he explored the murky world of artificial intelligence, which we are seeing in reality now. In “Devs,” he delved into alternative realities, which we will probably see soon.

With these topics, he sparked conversations about the consequences of creating conscious machines and intrigued viewers with questions about free will.

His latest work, “Civil War,” has been another thought-provoking venture that explores a domestic conflict—a civil war in the United States.

This domestic conflict bears a striking resemblance to the recent political turmoil currently happening in contemporary America, with the Presidential Election of 2024 knocking at the door.

With a shocking, unexplained conclusion, “Civil War” tackles the deep-rooted problem of the divisive issue in America, leaving viewers feeling super uncomfortable.


What is the story of the ‘Civil War’ about?

Civil War” is set in a time that could be considered the near future or an alternate reality, where the once United States is divided into four factions engaged in ongoing conflict.

Plunging the audience into the heart of the conflict, the film tracks the journey of four journalists as they make their way from New York to Washington, D.C.

In this tumultuous setting, the Western Forces of Texas and California launch an assault on the Loyalist government.

Joel, a seasoned reporter, is determined to get an interview with the loyalist president.

Meanwhile, Lee, an acclaimed photojournalist, diligently documents the harrowing scenes they encounter on their journey.

Jessie, a young amateur photojournalist who greatly admires Lee, decides to join despite the risks involved.

Sammy, an esteemed journalist who is a bit older and suffers from physical challenges, also joins the team, although it may put him in difficult situations.

Throughout their trip, Jessie acquires valuable experience capturing the intensity of conflicts and executions.

Initially filled with fear, she gradually develops a twisted sense of excitement in her work, mirroring Lee’s apathetic approach.

During their journey, they visit a refugee camp, witness a sniper showdown on a golf course, and come across a village that seems to be oblivious to the ongoing war, resembling a scene from “The Twilight Zone.”

Heading towards DC, a pleasant encounter with some Asian journalist friends (Nelson Lee and Evan Lai) takes a dark turn when a racist soldier (Jesse Plemons) initiates an aggressive hostage situation.

Sammy heroically saves his team and leads them to safety, sacrificing his own life in the process.


The ‘shocking end’ of ‘Civil War’

During the climactic scene of “Civil War,” the road journey transforms into a grand action film. Lee, Jessie, and Joel are reporting from the frontlines as the Western Forces army advances towards the capital.

Reports are circulating that suggest the President may be considering surrendering; however, this hasn’t deterred the WF, who are launching a full-scale assault with helicopters and weapons, causing significant damage to the Lincoln Memorial in the process.

As the troops and journalists navigate through the deadly battle zone and reach the White House, a government official tragically meets a fatal end after offering terms of surrender.

Given the escalating violence, it appears that negotiation techniques are no longer a viable option.

During the heated moment, as Jessie is focused on capturing photos, Lee becomes aware of a gunman targeting her young colleague.

Lee heroically sacrifices herself to save Jessie, bravely taking the bullets and tragically losing her life.

Jessie keeps snapping pictures, capturing Lee’s lifeless body even as she falls onto her.

It’s an intense remembrance of an earlier scene in the film, where Lee and Jessie witness a tragic event unfold at a petrol station.

“Would you photograph that moment if I got shot?” Jessie asks with tears in her eyes. “What do you think?” Lee responds calmly.

Reluctantly, Lee assumes the role of Jessie’s mentor throughout the film, guiding her on how to separate her work from her feelings.

“To me, it’s a bit heartbreaking, but it also feels inevitable,” reflects Cailee Spaeny on Jessie’s reaction to Lee’s death.

“But it’s mixed. It could be a bit hopeful; someone else does have to take this on. This is an important job, but it’s also bittersweet, right? Most of what I felt was slightly disturbed.”

Throughout the “Civil War,” Jessie became gradually accustomed to violence.

Spaeny had the unique opportunity to witness Jessie’s character development unfold as the film was shot in chronological order.

“As we were filming, I would just know, ‘OK, it’s time for her to step up,’” Spaeny reminisces.

“With that last sequence, I knew there was going to be some sort of passing of the baton. So much was informed by Kirsten’s performance and the decisions she made on how to play Lee. I was just trying to soak that in,” she added.

In the final scene, Jessie abandons Lee’s lifeless body and joins Joel in the Oval Office.

Inside, the president lies on the floor, surrounded by rebels aiming their weapons at him.

Ever since the war began, Joel has been relentlessly pursuing an interview with the president, who has completely isolated himself from the media for years.

“Wait! Wait! I need a quote!” Joel says, to which the president responds with a muffled plea for his safety, “Don’t let them kill me!”

“Yup, that’ll do,” Joel says with a dry tone, as the agitators unexpectedly shoot down the commander-in-chief, and the credits start rolling as the sound of Suicide’s “Keep Your Dreams” plays in the background.

The ambiguous story plot of ‘Civil War’ and the ending

Civil War” does not provide any information about the origins of the war or which side initiated the first attacks.

Numerous characters, whether they are trying to evade the war or actively participating in it, choose to remain silent on political matters.

Meanwhile, the rest of the individuals are well-versed in the current state of affairs, eliminating the necessity for them to provide unnecessary explanations.

By analysing Joel and Sammy’s discussion on the ideal interview questions for the president, we can gain insights into the key issues driving this war.

In simple terms, the President exhibits fascist tendencies. He is currently serving his third term, which raises concerns about potential changes to the Constitution.

Additionally, there have been discussions about the dismantling of the FBI, reminiscent of calls made by certain politicians to undermine the “Deep State.”

Furthermore, there have been reports of drone strikes being used against citizens, which has raised questions about civil liberties.

It is also worth noting that he has referred to members of the press as “enemy combatants.”

Various political factors, which are either contributing to or resulting from the war, also make an appearance.

Protesters on the street desperately pleaded for water, only to be met with a disturbing display of police aggression.

The value of the American dollar has plummeted, forcing Lee to pay for gasoline in Canadian dollars.

The inclusion of Jesse Plemons’ character, a soldier, introduces a distinct tone of alt-right xenophobia to one side of the conflict.

Although the soldier’s allegiance is not explicitly mentioned, his endorsement of certain states as “real America” strongly suggests that he aligns with the Loyalist agenda.

The seemingly political statement of “Civil War” serves as a cautionary tale. Garland has consistently described his film as a metaphor, offering a glimpse into a possible future for America if its divisions continue to grow.

“The modern state of civil war is a fractured collapse across the board,” the director informed A24.

“This is not a repetition of the previous Civil War. I don’t think America or the rest of the world is in danger of the clear demarcations of the previous Civil War. That’s not the risk the world faces. We are facing a disintegration risk.”


What is ‘Civil War’ saying about journalists?

Showing full respect to journalism, “Civil War” explores the complicated nature of journalism, especially war photojournalism, and the ethical responsibilities and dilemmas that journalists face during the conflict.

The transition from a rookie photojournalist to a professional photojournalist was a beautiful thing to watch and, at the same time, a painful one to see the vulnerability and the pain, of carrying the weight.

Examining the characters of Lee and Jessie, the film offers a critical perspective on the customary concept of journalistic objectivity.

It implies that this approach could hide the personal aspects of human experience and the emotional burden of witnessing traumatic events.

The movie explores the effectiveness and significance of the journalists’ job as they record the horrors of the war, asking if their photographs can be contributed.

“Civil War” emphasises the emotional toll that journalists take in the search for the truth, as well as the difficult-to-define role that journalists play in influencing how the public remembers and accepts war through being detached or deeply immersed.

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