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Civil War: A Review

Updated: Apr 23

Off the heels of his latest work Men a.k.a. Men Are Bad: The Movie, Alex Garland gave the film industry a bit of a shake last week by announcing, and later clarifying that he was not in fact retiring from directing but rather intended to step back and focus on writing. His previous successes in screenwriting are well documented (28 Days Later, Ex Machina), but his far spottier record as a director is no more evident than in his most recent film Civil War, a cautionary tale about “division” in the political climate and the violent inflection point it may reach if unaddressed. Setting aside how strange it is to allow a British person to helm this uniquely American project, the film fails on a conceptual level for numerous reasons.

Early promotional material for the film included a map portraying the fractured United States as Garland imagines it to be in a time of irreconcilable strife. What I assume jumps out to anyone who lays eyes upon the map are the Western Forces, the creatively named alliance between Texas and California complete with their own little two-starred flag. These politically identical states make up the primary opposition to the fascist President played by Nick Offerman who, oddly nameless in the film, plays a lazily veiled parody of Donald Trump. In what passes for exposition, one character recaps the President’s crimes by rehearsing interview questions where we learn he has disbanded the FBI and has been killing American citizens with drone strikes, something Garland seems to believe is without precedent.

The pedant in me is compelled to point out that the populations of these states are far from homogenous, to include the armed forces stationed within. With defections, desertions, and internal conflict sure to arise following a declaration of secession, a state government fielding a capable military is a reach, to say the least. The rest of the country is split into three other factions which go largely unmentioned, so we are left to wonder why they even bothered releasing this stupid map.

Garland intentionally spends annoyingly little effort detailing how these alliances came to be. Worldbuilding is not particularly important in this particular case of speculative fiction, but it does illuminate his understanding of who he is writing about. Why Texas, currently waging a war on immigrants and women, would defy a far-right authoritarian President is anyone’s guess, but the idea that the state’s right-leaning electorate would tolerate an alliance with Commiefornia betrays a criminal ignorance of the actual tribalism at work within the US population. Why is California the only blue state to stand up to the Orange One? Why do Missouri and West Virginia remain loyal to DC but Oklahoma, Florida, and other conservative bellwethers break off into their own nations? A more well-read observer of the country’s societal friction could easily detail the most plausible backstory of a theoretical conflict of this nature, but Garland is the one writing and directing this, and he doesn’t know. The viewer is dropped in the middle of the conflict in progress, because ultimately the film isn’t really about politics at all.

The film follows Lee Smith, a legendary veteran photojournalist played aptly by Kirsten Dunst, on a mission to reach Washington DC to interview the President before the Western Forces close in and give him the old Muammar Gaddafi special. Paired with Joel, played by Wagner Moura as an actually kind of grating creep, the two set out to capture the story of the decade with two additional colleagues in tow, played by Stephen McKinley Henderson and Cailee Spaeny. Spaeny plays Jessie Cullen, an aspiring photojournalist herself and doe-eyed superfan of Lee who spends the film becoming progressively desensitized to the brutality of her countrymen on her way to honing her picture-taking skills. Hers and Lee’s story arches culminate in a trite and predictable passing-of-the-torch moment, one of the film’s many fundamental narrative shortcomings. In keeping DC in their sights, the film bypasses what is in actuality the most interesting original idea. The middle act serves as a series of vignettes in which the team comes across seemingly random encounters between Americans capitalizing on the chaos and lawlessness to settle scores big and small.

One such tense encounter, effectively the emotional climax of the film, features Kirsten Dunst’s husband Jesse Plemons as an unnamed militia member of unknown affiliation filling a mass grave. Few actors have such command of what I would call subdued psychopathy, and this is no exception. These sequences are reminiscent of Max Brooks’s World War Z, an anthology of sectarian confrontations. Unfortunately the film is mostly playing passenger to reporters treating war like storm chasing rather than exploring why people are actually alienated from one another.

Civil War is marketed as a love letter to journalism, and it succeeds in portraying it as a vital component of understanding the world and the conflicts that shape it, but no consideration is given to the fact that journalism can be used to deceive and misinform. Not all journalism is created equal. In an interview with The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart, CNN anchor Christiane Amanpour says the problem with news coverage of the war in Gaza is that western journalists can’t get in. Stewart corrects her in stating Arab journalists are already in Gaza, bravely and accurately reporting on Israeli atrocities that are being whitewashed in prestigious western outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post. “Journalism” at large is treated as monolithic and infallible, Garland’s worship of the status quo renders him unable to imagine it as a spectrum. The film also makes brief usage of protest footage provided by far-right propagandist and terrorist collaborator Andy Ngo. The footage itself is nothing special, but are we to assume Garland, a high-minded neutral observer, considers Ngo an equal to Lee Smith? Garland aims to portray journalists as beleaguered moral arbiters, yet in one of the few impactful scenes we are introduced to who we are led to assume is a Boogaloo Boys militia group. Garland inadvertently tips his hand here in thinking he is holding up a mirror, but as the militia executes prisoners of war, where are our intrepid heroes? Well, Joe is with the militia leader, laughing over a cigarette. As we’re constantly reminded throughout the film, the story is what is important. To get the story you need access, and getting access means overlooking some things.

One must wonder what Garland thinks politics even is. In a film almost entirely devoid of humor, the one laugh-worthy moment is a passing reference to the “antifa massacre”, an event left to the imagination as no one is credited with perpetrating it, a narrative punch-pull for the ages simultaneously meant to appease everyone and no one. What he perceives as division is the inevitable convergence of groups with opposing interests realizing they need political power to pursue them. This refereeing of discourse being the ultimate expression of democracy relies on the assumption that all actors involved have equally valid grievances. The fact is that millions of Americans want things that are in direct conflict with each other, and for better or worse those things are often acquired by force. This is true even now, when this country is ostensibly not at war with itself, but people are killed regardless. Is the state’s monopoly on violence not divisive? Is it not harmful to the social fabric of the country to destroy families in the process of prosecuting nonviolent and victimless crimes? Perhaps they might be considered as such were it not for these things being established by liberal consensus. The War on Drugs, the War on Terror, the Patriot Act, these are things some people wanted, and they used political power to get them The Right Way. In doing so, political actors codified their own violent objectives within the bounds of acceptable discourse. The insistence on decorum then requires that anyone who protests such injustice exists outside those bounds, because they are breaking the rules. Opposing discrimination makes you a gadfly, an unruly child who must be made to play nice with those who want you dead.

The film’s failure is really a failure of the non-ideology behind it, the radical centrism Garland appears to adhere to, where polarization is a force of nature like gravity. Ever present, no one person or group responsible. There are no enemies, only problems to be solved, somehow. Civil War isn’t a bad movie because it says the wrong things, it’s a bad movie because, like those hoping to straddle a line they draw themselves, it says nothing at all.

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