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Civil War’s Divisive Restraint

Civil War’s Divisive Restraint

Alex Garland’s political fable is not the movie you want it to be.

Five days after Trump’s inauguration, I had to travel to Philadelphia. I was headed to the Modern Language Association’s annual conference, a gathering that has received its annual drubbing in the conservative press like clockwork every January. To spend some time figuring out how to respond to the inevitable avalanche of anti-Trump screeds, I decided to drive from Nashville with a quick stop in D.C. 

Hundreds of miles outside the urban enclaves, the sun-damaged Trump signs were still hanging. Surely, anyone who frequents this route should have known what was coming. It was a thought that first popped into my head on a trip to West Virginia weeks before the election. But that was the problem. Only a certain stock travels these roads. And, despite the savvy marketing and flurry of online discourse, this seems to be the central point of A24’s new blockbuster, Civil War.

When the boutique indie studio unveiled the first trailer for the film over the holidays, conservative media was, as is the custom, quick to pile on a movie they hadn’t seen. It was Trump Derangement Syndrome at its most expensive, a preach-to-the-choir lefty opus that wanted the Orange Man’s base dead as much as it desired to tap American journalists for sainthood. Such intellectual duplicity could almost be forgiven, considering the self-inflicted decline of America’s culture industry since the advent of Trumpworld. Yet, it’s also an inexcusable and obvious ploy, a grift from the side that clings to a moral high ground maintained by shortcuts and subterfuge.

Like Dickens, Naipaul, and the other interlopers who have written thoughtfully about these United States from outsider perspectives, the English Garland is neither arrogant enough to look down on his subject matter nor invested in our trivial culture warmongering. In fact, he intentionally thwarts any attempts to read his movie as an allegory of These Times that is easily explicated in a rando’s X thread. 

Civil War has no interest in a Red vs. Blue battle royale. It pits the federal government against the Western Forces drawing its military prowess from an unfathomable union of Texas and California with an unruly Florida Alliance making its own trouble. The film pointedly references the fictional Antifa Massacre and the Western Forces base in Charlottesville. However, Garland willfully defuses both buzzwords from their connotations in the current discourse.

Nick Offerman plays the authoritarian third-termer president of this regime, an actor best known for his role as libertarian idol Ron Swanson in Parks and Recreation, and, as of late, a virulent anti-Trump critic in his comedy shows and specials. Both Offerman and Garland have gone out of their way to state that they avoided any association between Trump and their leader of the free world. Despite their objective success, such intent is irrelevant to the same based mob who took Swanson at face value and expected Offerman to start writing a column for Reason

Likewise, both sides seem utterly unaffected by the Summer of Floyd identity politics discourse, two multiethnic coalitions ready to engage in some good old-fashioned ultraviolence (with the exception of one scene that is more about post-COVID yellow peril than naked racism). President Offerman may have disbanded the FBI and expressed a penchant for executing journalists, but his press secretary is a dead ringer for Karine Jean-Pierre, his entourage with their well-tailored suits and DCist affectations, decisively not the type of people who publicly opine on their adoration of Dippin’ Dots.

In centering Civil War on a ragtag pack of journalists led by Kirsten Dunst’s internationally renowned war photographer, Garland forces his audience to interrogate their own simplistic views of the American press. The “enemy of the people” crowd will bristle at having to identify with a team of Reuters and New York Times scribes on this journey. The lefties who worship at the altar of the Fourth Estate will find that Dunst (clearly channeling iconic war correspondent Marie Colvin) and her colleagues’ detached and often reckless behavior is a far cry from the put-upon journalists the folks at Jacobin just prescribed government subsidies to rescue. 

The most shocking moment in the whole bloody affair is when Dunst’s Lee tells her protege, Jessie (Priscilla’s Cailee Spaeny), that her calling is to observe, even if that means snapping a photo of her friends as they double over from a gunshot to the head. The exchange captures an approach to journalism long forgotten, a reminder that Taylor Lorenz, Ezra Klein, and Sean Hannity wouldn’t fare so well in a war zone. It’s not President Offerman’s troops, but the antics of the young bucks performing Gonzo journalism stereotypes that lead to the movie’s most tragic deaths– one of the most damning indictments of the “change the world” muckraker ever put to film. 

Its political ruminations aside, Civil War isn’t a Godard polemic; it’s a four-quadrant Hollywood movie that must succeed on those terms. And it’s more than up for the challenge. As Garland proved with his screenplays for 28 Days Later and Never Let Me Go, he’s an adept chronicler of dystopian worlds, something many viewers likely forgot in his far weaker post-Ex Machina output as a director. In melding road and man-on-a-mission movie conventions, Garland shows a knack for depicting the reality of Flyover County. The only other time West Virginia has abandoned its backwoods chic in a Hollywood movie is Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky

Much of the film’s success hinges on Garland’s central motif of Dunst and Spaeny in close-up on the cusp of breaking the fourth wall as they snap their photos. Such a strategy allows Garland to immerse the audience in the action while creating a clear sense of space that even the best action successors to Sam Peckinpah haven’t quite figured out. It also forces the audience to question the fruits of war and the violence they are currently consuming as entertainment–a conceit enhanced by IMAX screens and 4D smoke and shaking. For critics like Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson, the film keeping things “as blank and objective” is its fatal detriment. Yet, Garland knows art shouldn’t take sides. It should confront us with the reasons we chose ours in the first place.

Civil War is now playing in theaters.