Alex Garland Explains Civil War’s Final Shot, And Why He Usually Starts With The Last Five Minutes Of His Stories

 Kirsten Dunst Wagner Moura and Cailee Spaeny exploring a chaotic White House in Civil War.
Kirsten Dunst Wagner Moura and Cailee Spaeny exploring a chaotic White House in Civil War.

MAJOR SPOILERS lie ahead for Alex Garland’s Civil War

A great movie ending is not easy to execute but, when it a filmmaker does hit the mark, it can make all the difference in regard to the lasting impact their feature has. When it comes to the end of A24’s Civil War, it may be a conclusions that sparks debate among moviegoers. No matter how you feel about it though, it’s hard to argue with the notion that writer/director Alex Garland went for a major moment with the movie’s final scenes. When CinemaBlend spoke to Garland, he opened up about the final shot and explained instrumental the last five minutes of a film are to his writing process.

During our own Sean O’Connell’s interviews for Civil War, Alex Garland shared at what point in the writing process the movie’s powerful ending came to him. In his words:

Usually stories for me, pretty much always actually, begin with the ending. And then I’m trying to figure out how we get there. What’s the sequence of events? You could almost try it as a sort of easy thought experiment. If you take the last five minutes of a film, the sequence of events that lead you there may almost be inevitable once you break apart the constituent parts of that five minutes. What I’m saying is if you have the ending clear in your mind, you can work backwards from it. You can sort of reverse engineer it.

Ahead of this recent entry on the 2024 movie schedule, the director famously wrote the screenplays for other movies like 28 Days Later, Ex Machina and Men the latter two of which he also directed. As the seasoned storyteller shared with O’Connell, when he's crafting a story, he usually starts off with the final few minutes of the movie and works backwards from there. It's an interesting way to operate creatively but, given his past credits, it seems to work for the filmmaker. And I can only imagine how he worked his way forward with this latest endeavor.

In terms of making Civil War, which takes place in a fictionalized version of the United States that's experienced state secession, Alex Garland started in the White House, if we're keeping his creative process in mind. It's in that location that war photojournalists Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst) and Jessie Cullen (Cailee Spaeney) are accompanying members of the "Western Forces" alongside fellow journalist Joel (Wagner Moura) as the militia heads to take down a fictional president.

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Kirsten Dunst in Civil War
Kirsten Dunst in Civil War

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In a split second, Lee rushes to save the younger Jessie from being shot as she snaps a photo, and she herself is killed in the process. And, as she falls to her death, Jessie snaps her final moments. The team pushes on and locates the politician. Joel manages to get a final quote from the president and, after giving said sentiment, he's killed. Seriously, what a wild place to start writing a narrative!

The film has a poetic ending that is really deepened by the characters that are established throughout the movie. From the beginning, Lee is established as a hardened and traumatized photographer covering the titular crisis. While the ending is tragic, it underlines the character’s belief that dying a hero is better than surviving to watch the world burn without capturing its injustices, as she has the gift to do.

The Annihilation director's methods for crafting a story, especially in this case, worked to his advantage considering the success of the movie. Critics and audiences alike have been raving about the war drama, with CinemaBlend’s Civil War review giving the movie a perfect five out of five.  It also broke a big record for A24 at the box office during last weekend’s debut, as it notched a new milestone for in-house tickets sold. Now, its also expected to outpace this weekend’s new releases, Abigail and The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, per Variety.

Should Alex Garland not direct any additional films as he's said, then this is certainly some way to go out. I have no doubt people will be talking about this movie's final shot for years to come. At present though, you can see Civil War for yourself in theaters now and read up on upcoming A24 movies.