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‘Civil War’ Shows American Divisions Through a Glass, Darkly

Chronicles MagazineCivil War  Directed and written by Alex Garland – Produced by DNA Films et al. – Distributed by A24

“Holy S***! What a F****** rush!” exclaims Joel, a cocky Hispanic photojournalist, after he watches rebel militants execute uniformed soldiers captured in a firefight early in Alexander Garland’s Civil War. The character, played gratingly by Narcos star Wagner Moura, is not reacting to a war crime in Ukraine, the Middle East, or sub-Saharan Africa but somewhere along a circuitous route between New York City and Washington, D.C. On that difficult road, supplies are short, tensions are high, danger lurks around every corner, and—perhaps most discouraging of all—Canadian dollars are the only hard currency.

The civil war of Garland’s title is an imagined conflict within America set in a disturbingly near future or an alternate present. Rebellious regional groupings, including a “Western Forces” entity improbably linking California and Texas, a Southern faction more plausibly called the “Florida Alliance,” and a Pacific Northwest coalition known as the “New People’s Army,” are marching on Washington. Their aim is to depose a bellicose but isolated president, who calls for national unity but lacks the power to end the rebellion.

How the Republic reached this nadir is never explained beyond a throwaway reference to the president’s refusal to leave office after his second term in the context of an unknown crisis. Garland also never reveals the motivations of the rebels or how and why they consolidated into their separatist factions. Rather than exploring the real fissures in American politics and society, Garland, whose previous work was mainly in science fiction thrillers, has said in media interviews that he wanted to create a “conversation” about the “extremism” that he believes can result from populism and political polarization.

Garland is British, but he is not alone in his fears of a real second American civil war. According to a YouGov/Economist poll released in August 2022, 43 percent of Americans believe a civil war is at least “somewhat likely” in the next few years. Nearly one in four, according to a separate poll released by the same agency in March 2023, would favor a “national divorce” of red and blue states.

On a wide range of social and political issues, according to a 2021 The Hill/HarrisX poll, about one-third of Americans say they support radical left positions that are in many cases irreconcilable with the country’s founding principles. Still larger percentages profess a fundamental lack of trust in the government, with only 16 percent, according to a 2023 Pew Research Center poll, saying they believe the government will do what is right all or most of the time, compared to 77 percent in 1964.

This distrust extends to major institutions of society. A Gallup poll of Americans’ trust in the media released last October revealed that 68 percent had “not very much” or “none at all,” while another Gallup survey taken earlier in 2023 showed that only 36 percent had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education. In 2022, a majority  for the first time said that they did not trust the federal judiciary.

For at least two decades, such social and political commentators as Bill Bishop and Richard Florida have referred to a “Big Sort,” in which likeminded Americans are increasingly tending to congregate together and live largely separate lives from those on the other side of the political divide. Stories of families and friendships permanently sundered by political differences are commonplace at every level of American society. Civility and empathy are down; cruelty and indifference are up.

There is obviously much to talk about here, including sound arguments suggesting that despite its deep divisions America will not have another civil war, but Garland offers up meager food for thought on that score. His film could better be taken as a warning or cautionary tale.

Indeed, its opening scene shows a confrontation between an angry multiracial crowd of New Yorkers and New York police officers in full riot gear. This is a video image Garland probably did not expect would become jarringly familiar in actual press coverage of riots on our most prestigious university campuses—including four in New York—just days into his film’s release.

With Hollywood’s best special effects at his disposal, Garland shows us torture victims hovering at the threshold of death, capricious and blood-spurting killings, a gruesome mass grave of civilian corpses, close-ups of human bodies being shot by automatic weapons, and brutal urban battle scenes unfolding in the vicinity of the White House that look like the streets of Mogadishu, Fallujah, or Mariupol. With our last civil war 160 years in the past, viewers who may be tempted to romanticize a violent struggle for their version of the American experience will naturally get a sense of how utterly miserable and depraved the next civil war would be. In that sense alone, the unexplained politics of Garland’s film really need no explanation.

Garland shows us this dystopia literally through the lenses of a foursome of photojournalists who venture no strong opinions about the country’s unraveling but are out to get the ultimate scoop by interviewing the beleaguered president. This troop of journos is arrayed around Lee, a gritty, middle-aged professional played affectingly by Kirsten Dunst, and includes the aforementioned Joel, Lee’s retirement-aged black mentor Sammy, and the supremely annoying Gen Z aspirant Jessie, who tags along despite Lee’s objections. Situated in a shell-shocked New York that does not look altogether different from New York in our reality, they must reach Washington over back roads to avoid the devastated infrastructure of the Northeast corridor, which we know as merely distressed. Their perilous journey presents them with ugly truths and moral choices that eluded what were almost certainly the liberal sensibilities of their peacetime lives.

Often they themselves are the ugly ones. Encountering blood-soaked torture victims suspended by their wrists at a rural gas station, Lee asks their tormentors to pose for a photo when one of them gets a little too close to Jessie. When they photograph people being shot to bits, they compliment each other on their professional skills. They indulge in horrific surprise when a psychopathic militia commander presiding over the mass burial of executed civilians ignores their press credentials and asks at gunpoint the film’s defining question: “What kind of American are you?”

The “wrong” kind of American, as an Asian road acquaintance of the group finds out, is marked for elimination by this vicious brute, vividly played by Dunst’s real-life husband, Jesse Plemons, in an uncredited cameo appearance made in the absence of an originally cast actor who could not appear at the last minute. Before we find out what he means to do to the main characters, however, Sammy runs over the gunmen with the journalists’ vehicle, only to be fatally shot as the rescued party drives away. The trope of the sacrificial black man, or “magical Negro” is beyond cliché in contemporary cinema, but the acclaimed Broadway actor Stephen McKinley Henderson brings such gravitas to the role that we see what may be Garland’s greatest strength—drawing a character who can overcome a lifetime of professional cynicism to save his fellow cynics, even at the cost of his life.

Lee’s journey is more ambiguous. Her instinct at Sammy’s death is to photograph his dead body, but upon reflection she deletes the image from her camera. Finally entering Washington alongside the rebel troops, she and her remaining colleagues are among the first to enter the White House, where the president remains holed up despite a ruse suggesting that he had escaped. Before the soldiers find him, Lee is caught in the crossfire as Jessie captures black-and-white images of the unfolding scene. Is Jessie, played by the bland young actress Cailee Spaeny, transformed by her salvation through another’s sacrifice, or will she emerge from the experience as cynical and careerist as Lee?

One leaves Civil War wondering whether its audiences, who have given the film a modest profit as the summer blockbuster season starts to rev up, will really take Garland’s messages to heart. With its weak plot and extreme violence, it seems like the type of film that will take on popular—or more likely cult—connotations radically different from the creator’s intent, much as Franklin J. Schaffner’s intended anti-war biopic Patton, which was written by hippies at the height of the Vietnam War, is now widely revered as a lionizing depiction of a flawed but profoundly heroic American patriot. Instead of a warning about what to avoid, Civil War could be a harbinger of things to come.

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