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Civil War’s Mystifying Vision of American Meltdown

Alex Garland’s film is a fascinatingly empty meditation on journalism and our political divides.

Murray Close/courtesy of A24
Cailee Spaeny plays aspiring photojournalist Jessie.

 In late September 2001, two weeks after 9/11, The Onion published one of its most memorable headlines: “American Life Turns Into Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Movie.” “For nearly two full weeks,” the article reads, Americans had been “transfixed in front of their televisions, listening to shocked newscasters struggle to maintain their composure while describing events that would have been rejected by Hollywood producers as not believable enough for a Sylvester Stallone vehicle.” One “Irwin Trotter” is both sad and confused by his sadness. “‘There are Air Force jets flying over Manhattan and warships in New York harbor,’ he says, but none of it is exciting or entertaining at all.” The vibes were similarly off for “Thom Gardner” of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “In the movies, when the president says, ‘It’s war,’ that usually means the good part is just about to begin,” he muses. “Why doesn’t it feel that way now? It doesn’t feel like the good part is about to begin at all. It feels like there’s never going to be another good part again.”

Nearly a quarter-century later, America is still waiting for the good part. Just as “Gardner” feared, it may never arrive, for reasons The Onion’s writers couldn’t have fathomed at the time. Fiction rarely does justice to the cruelties and pathologies that often produce our times of crisis and overtake us within them; in this, as the novelist Ian McEwan wrote in The Guardian the day after the attacks, “American reality always outstrips the imagination,” though certainly not for our want of trying. No society in history has fantasized as enthusiastically about its own destruction. Asteroids and megastorms; zombies and other monsters; rogue robots and A.I.s; pandemics planned and unplanned; supervillains and terrorists of the pre-and post-9/11 varieties; nuclear Armageddon; war with enemies foreign, domestic, and extraterrestrial—whether out of guilt or a pride we know would produce an IMAX-worthy fall, Americans are thrilled by narratives of American collapse, so much so that we’re willing to see the same national symbols meet their demise over and over again. Consider what’s happened to poor Lady Liberty alone over the years. She’s knocked over by the aliens in Independence Day; the monster in Cloverfield, a show-off, decapitates her. Charlton Heston famously realizes the horrible truth about the Planet of the Apes upon seeing her buried in sand; in Deep Impact, she’s submerged under the waters of a massive tidal wave. Not to be outdone, The Day After Tomorrow hits her with a tsunami and encrusts her in ice by the film’s end.

In one poster for Civil War, written and directed by Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Annihilation, Men), she looks like she’ll be at the center of the action yet again—in an image as striking as it is stupid, two snipers sit in her torch, which has been fortified by sandbags, ready to loose hell upon whatever one supposes they might want to shoot at from an exposed position 300 feet in the air on an island in the middle of New York Bay. But in Civil War’s narrative, New York is far from the front lines. Instead, it’s the Lincoln Memorial that gets hit—rocket fire hurtles into the building in the film’s final sequence in D.C., though we don’t see Abe’s head tumbling tragically down the steps or very much in the way of grand, megawatt spectacle at all over the course of the film. Civil War, carried to the top of the box office by one of the great marketing fake-outs in recent memory, isn’t that kind of a movie. The film Garland’s delivered instead is a harrowing but fascinatingly empty meditation on journalism and our political divides.

The journalists Civil War follows, of course, are war correspondents—we meet them in a year that is not divulged, near the end of a conflict whose origins are not explained, between a coalition of forces that do not make immediate sense as allies and a dictatorial president (Nick Offerman) whose name we do not know. The war has gone poorly for him—the “Western Forces of Texas and California” are closing in on Washington. A group of four reporters and photographers leaves New York for D.C., where they might be killed on sight, in the hopes of securing an interview with him before he surrenders: Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), an elderly and grumbling correspondent for “what’s left of The New York Times”; Joel (Wagner Moura), a scruffy adrenaline junkie at that citadel of gonzo journalism, Reuters; Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), a wide-eyed aspiring photojournalist; and Lee (Kirsten Dunst), her idol and Joel’s working partner, whose years of experience capturing images of conflicts abroad have hardened her, right down to the single, stony expression Dunst wears for most of the film. Those experiences are now being brought to bear on a nation in shambles. “I thought I was sending a warning home,” Lee says of her past work, early on. “Don’t do this.” In one scene, we see her sitting in a bathtub as she remembers the horrors of her career in slow motion—it turns out, if you can believe it, that this gruff and outwardly unfeeling professional is suppressing her trauma and nursing a deep well of pain.

Over the course of the trek to Washington, Lee and the others are tested by a series of dangerous situations crafted, in part, to test their commitment to journalistic neutrality, a norm that happens to suit each of their personalities. There’s Lee’s grim professional resolve. There’s Joel’s loathsome amorality and cartoonish machisimo—“this gunfire is getting me extremely fucking hard”—which is, naturally, revealed as its own defense mechanism the moment it fails. There’s Sammy’s world-weariness, delivered well by Henderson, a real pro at sad-eyed exhaustion. And then there’s Jessie’s youthful ambition—she eagerly wheedles her way aboard the journey to America’s end as though it were an editorial internship; one of the film’s strengths is the way Spaeny, as fresh-faced as it gets, manages to capture the evil of being 23. 

Another is its intensity. On the whole, Civil War is a much slower and more cerebral film than viewers will expect; again, it doesn’t come close to delivering on its marketing’s promise of seeing major battles until the end. Even then—maybe owing to A24’s budget and the way shots from Tyler Perry’s White House replica and elsewhere were sewn together, maybe owing to Garland’s experience working on video games—the battle in Washington feels more like a final Call of Duty level than epic film and mostly plays out at that more intimate scale. But those scenes and the few skirmishes that precede them are gripping nonetheless. Real veterans were hired as extras and advisers for close combat scenes. Much of that footage was shot with a new, self-stabilizing handheld camera, capable of producing images far closer to what the human eye actually sees than the putatively immersive “shakycam” footage of the last couple of decades in action cinema, which, in its jerkiness, emphasizes that events are being viewed through a lens.

Those combat scenes really shine, though, when their immersion is intentionally broken—every few moments, all goes quiet as Lee and Jessie take still snapshots, which briefly freeze the action and appear on-screen. We see a soldier shot and killed in this way, for instance. As bullets loudly ricochet around him, he finally and fatally runs for cover; successive stills capture his body falling to the ground. This is edited well—the stills aren’t so brief that the effect is disorienting or so long that the viewer tires of being taken away from the action. Garland is plainly gifted at managing tension, though that gift is best displayed in a more straightforwardly filmed scene—that confrontation with a blankly menacing Jesse Plemons, well telegraphed by the film’s trailers. The query many viewers will go into the film having heard, about “what kind” of Americans Lee and her companions are, winds up having less to do with the factional divides the narrative thinly sketches out than with a xenophobia that’s been loosed in the film’s America just as it has in ours. The dialogue in that scene, in fact, is one of a few clear hints—including references to “Portland Maoists,” and “antifa massacre,” and the disbanding of the FBI—indicating that Civil War’s world is either a direct extension of our own or a close cousin to it.

That’s not to say its world feels especially real and lived in. There’s a bombed-out J.C. Penney, wrecked cars piled up on the freeway, and the like, but Civil War’s verisimilitude is limited by the fact that the film is largely devoid of ordinary people. We see some begging for water, camping together as refugees in a field, and ambling casually through a well-protected town, but that’s mostly it. They’re part of the scenery encountered only every so often; Garland takes only a cursory interest in how thoroughly conflict would roil American life as experienced by most Americans. Instead, we spend nearly all the film’s runtime with the most unrepresentative journalists in the profession and the few Americans perpetrating the violence they’re working to document. 

Some of the first ones we meet are guarding a gas station Lee and the others stop at early on their trip. Out back, Jessie discovers in horror, two men—savagely beaten and spitting up blood—have been strung up for looting. One of their slack-jawed captors tells her he used to know one of them in high school and muses aloud about finally killing them. As Jessie stammers in disbelief, Lee, who’s arrived late to the scene, asks him to pose with the two. When the group drives away, Jessie frets about what will become of them and whether they could or should have intervened. “Once you start asking yourself those questions, you can’t stop,” Lee replies sharply. “So we don’t ask. We record so other people ask. You want to be a journalist? That’s the job.”

Is that the job? More to the point, would Garland have us believe it is? “The viewer is required to make their own interpretation,” he told Entertainment Weekly in an interview. “The film is actually being opaque. It’s forcing the viewer to ask questions.” This is the kind of reticence we’ve come to expect from good directors; auteurs who are vague about what their films mean and get surly when asked are afforded extra respect. But Garland, that particular interview notwithstanding, is actually something much rarer and more special in prestige film—a director who won’t shut up. For weeks now, with the desperation of a man on trial, he’s been outlining and defending his intentions in any venue that will have him. “Journalists are getting shat on, and they’re being distrusted,” he said at a SXSW screening. “And I wanted to make journalists the hero because there’s a simple point at the heart of it, which is that in any kind of free country … journalists are not a luxury. They’re a necessity.” He elaborated on this in an interview with The New York Times last week—“The film,” he explained, “is presenting old-fashioned reporters, as opposed to extremely biased journalists who are essentially producing propaganda. They’re old-fashioned reporters, and the film tries itself to function like those reporters.”

That’s plain in the way Civil War depicts photography as a medium. It’s an exercise in recursive filmmaking—one of those movies that turns the camera on cameras and the way they distance their users from their subjects. As Garland suggests, there’s not all that much of a difference between being the kind of journalist he respects and being the kind of director he would like to be but isn’t—one content to show and let viewers do the asking and telling. For journalists and directors alike, that commitment to restraint is worth keeping, the film implies, even at the expense of accessing and being true to their own emotions. Amusingly, Garland presses this point through scenes laid so thickly with forced meaning it practically smudges the screen. In the most heavy-handed of them, Lee lingers over and finally deletes a particularly upsetting photo in her camera’s roll as a means of closure. It would be harder for Jessie to do the same—she’s shooting analog on 35 mm film. As he’s happily informed us all, this was a choice Garland intended as a technological and normative throwback to “an era where the societal function of media was more fully understood and embraced.” 

All this is both thematically interesting and baffling on a basic narrative level. How is the question-asking viewer that Lee and Garland envision supposed to access the photos being taken, anyway? The internet and mobile services are down throughout the film. And what kinds of questions should their work inspire? Absent the social and political context both Garland and his imagined journalists refuse to supply, what meaningful information do the images and quotes they’re gathering—stills of combat, a plea not to be killed—actually impart to their readers and viewers? That people are capable of cruelty? Is that the big scoop they’re chasing?

Though he spends Civil War’s runtime trying to figure it out, Garland hasn’t a clue why journalists do what they do. In fairness, neither do many journalists. And to his credit, whether out of narrative interest or earnest doubt, he does try to test and complicate his own assumptions—with mixed results. Journalists, as a profession, might be heroes at the end of the day, yes. But midday, he shows us one, Joel—again, more caricature than character—laughing with and backslapping soldiers as they execute prisoners to a cloyingly ironic De La Soul needle drop. “What a fucking rush!” he says as they drive off.

Journalism might be vital, the lifeblood of democracy, but the one ordinary American given a real, though still brief place in the film’s narrative—the bored shopkeeper from the trailers—invokes the news as an excuse for disengaging from the world around her own fortress of a community. That exchange and other lines about people who’ve chosen to “pretend that none of this is happening” are supposed to leave us with the impression that disengagement is wrong. But what exactly would Garland and his journalists have Americans in this scenario do? Take up arms themselves? For whom? As best as one can tell from the war crimes we witness, there are many bad people on all sides of the conflict. And Garland’s decision not to explain what the war is fundamentally about—beyond the actions of a president who doesn’t seem obviously worse than those trying to depose him—doesn’t leave viewers or the inhabitants of the America he depicts with many reasons to care who wins. 

The real enemy the film targets—more so than any of the war’s factions or their real-world inspirations—is polarization. Here again, Garland has laid out his message explicitly. “Left and right are ideological arguments about how to run a state,” he said at SXSW. “You try one, and if that doesn’t work out, you vote it out, and you try again a different way. That’s a process. But we’ve made it into ‘good and bad.’ We made it into a moral issue, and it’s fucking idiotic, and incredibly dangerous.” He later clarified that social issues don’t factor at all into his understanding of the left and right, which is limited to the question of whether governments should have “low taxation to stimulate economic growth, or high taxation to help disadvantaged people via educational welfare.”

The fact that both sides would take issue with that binary aside, the moral values and principles we bring to our politics—the moral values and principles that, with the exception of the Plemons scene, Garland tries to make absent in Civil War—are, more often than not, the basis upon which we decide what it means for policies to “work out” in the first place. They are also the only plausible basis for the questions Lee hopes her journalism—which is not about tax policy—will provoke. When we see images of men who’ve been strung up and tortured, the questions that come to mind, whether we appreciate it or not, are about human dignity—the fundamental respect for our persons we may or may not be entitled to as human beings and what, if anything, could possibly justify denying it. And the way we answer those questions does, inevitably, bleed into the way we handle our taxes—the way we decide who’s worthy of our investment and who the truly disadvantaged are to begin with. 

As Garland surely understands on some level, the way we answer those questions even determines the extent to which we value a free press and democracy itself. Though Civil War’s script was completed before January 6, he’s said the attack on the Capitol inspired and fueled its production. “What I had was this incredibly intense feeling that this is a disgrace,” he told the Associated Press. “Later, as time went by, some of that anger fed into the project.” But anger at whom, exactly? The film and all he’s said about it imply, correctly, that Donald Trump and what he’s wrought are symptoms of divisions that preceded him. But it’s intentionally mute on the nature of those divisions and how they came about. 

It’s Garland’s incuriosity here that makes the film one of the most novel and interesting entries in the National Catastrophe genre. Civil War is a disaster movie. The carnage that transforms the American landscape isn’t the product of an asteroid or a tsunami but another elemental tragedy that happened off-screen—an earthquake of sorts the film’s America collectively triggered somehow. By the time Americans noticed the shaking at the fault lines, the ground swaying and breaking under their feet, it was too late. The fractures were too deep. They did it to themselves, Garland implies; there was no party or faction in particular to blame. In fact, our impulse to blame may itself have been to blame.

Civil War, as described by Garland, is a film about the perils of taking politics seriously. On-screen it is also, and in fact primarily, a film about the merits of having nothing to say. It has much to say about this—making detached art about the importance of detachment is, like making journalism without a point of view, a project doomed to failure. That’s especially so when an artist is as anxious to be heard as Garland plainly is. At SXSW, he wondered aloud about the country’s seeming failure to absorb warnings from experts about its political divisions. “Is it the polarization?” he asked. “Is it just that we are not able to absorb any information because of the position we’ve already taken?’ Hence, making a movie that pulls the polarization out of it.”

This alone would explain the widely discussed and wildly implausible alliance between Texas and California in the film, though that choice probably helped Civil War at the box office as well. It’s a movie marketed to indulge partisan fantasies of national divorce or collapse, but one that sits at enough of a remove from real politics that it’s avoided alienating potential audiences so far. There have been no serious attempts at a boycott since release. There have been no denunciations or cancellations of note. Red or blue, Americans like seeing America come to pieces on-screen. A conflict that would formally break the America we actually live in apart remains a remote possibility. But for reasons Civil War doesn’t speak to, more discord and violence are surely headed our way. Real blood, not squibs. Just read the news.