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American Carnage

Alex Garland’s spectacular new film ‘Civil War’ is a warning of what can happen to democracies when civil society collapses.

· 6 min read
Actor Nick Offerman as the President of the US during a public address. A still from the film.
The fictional US president (Nick Offerman) addresses the nation in Alex Garland’s Civil War (via YouTube).rap

In Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 classic Apocalypse Now, a US patrol boat heads upriver during the Vietnam War to assassinate Colonel Kurtz, a rogue commander whose followers worship him as a god. In writer-director Alex Garland’s new film Civil War, four journalists take a road trip from New York to Washington DC to interview a rogue president before the collapse of his illegitimate regime. The White House is no less the heart of darkness than Kurtz’s lawless outpost in the Cambodian jungle.

Civil War is Garland’s third collaboration with A24, an indie production and distribution outfit primarily known for producing “elevated horror” and small, popular award-winners. With its $50 million budget, Civil War is the company’s first swing at a blockbuster. It arrives three years after the January 6 insurrection as America prepares for what promises to be another bitterly contested presidential election. Americans own more guns per 100 people than citizens of any other nation; the number of armed militia groups in the US has metastasized, primarily on the Right but also on the Left; and 20 percent of the US public (28 percent of Republicans and 12 percent of Democrats) believe that violence may be necessary to solve their country’s dysfunction. So, it’s no surprise that America’s armed, angry, and deeply polarized society lends itself to a speculative take on a near-future civil war.

Garland refuses to assign responsibility for this war or to map his story to current political realities. That said, the film’s US president (Nick Offerman) is clearly coded as Trump. He looks like Trump’s Rasputin, Steve Bannon, after a shower; he has abolished the FBI; he has grabbed an unconstitutional third term in office; and he uses the former president’s tell-tale phrasing to lie about his upcoming defeat: “Some are already calling it the greatest victory in the history of mankind.” In the real world, a third-term power grab would require a constitutional change with the support of 38 states: Republicans only control 27, not all of them MAGA. Further, Garland posits that 19 states have seceded and formed three separate military alliances, which would be impossible given the brief time frame for multiple referenda and certain judicial delay. And the most prominent of the insurrectionist groups, the Western Forces, is an extremely unlikely (though never say never, I suppose) combination of deep red Texas and deep blue California.

Although Garland’s film has been widely praised for its convincing depiction of near-future America as a war-torn hellscape, he has taken considerable flak from progressive critics for the political ambiguity and “bothsidesism” of this fantasy dystopia. In an essay for Wired, David Gilbert even described the film as “akin to a far-right fantasy recruiting tool.” This misses the point. Garland isn’t interested in the backstory or politics of his civil war any more than Coppola was interested in the details of the war in Vietnam. Rather, like Coppola, he has created a heart-pounding allegory about the consequences to a society that loses trust in its institutions and the moral guardrails that support them.

Fear of social implosion isn’t confined to the United States or its upcoming election. Populist distrust of civic institutions has made us feel vulnerable to urban warfare and/or guerilla tactics launched by militant gangs; an authoritarian response to mass protests that could spiral out of control; and international wars that are radicalizing domestic communities. Garland has set his story in America because its size and power raise the dramatic stakes. But by scrambling its politics beyond recognition, he makes clear that the warning is universal. This is typical of Garland, whose films deal in allegory and metaphor: He plunges us directly into the action and expects us to accept his situations as givens. In his biggest screenwriting hit, 28 Days Later (2002), the protagonist wakes up from a coma to discover that a so-called “rage virus” has devastated the UK, now overrun by infected legions of highly-mobile zombies. In Civil War, political polarization is the rage virus destroying everyone, no matter their side. The question isn’t, “How did we get here?” Rather, it’s “What do we do now?”

The journalists’ trip to Washington is a series of set pieces that range from chilling to depraved. People take advantage of the anarchy around them to avenge personal grievances; for instance, hanging their high school classmates in a car wash. Unaligned militias use it as cover for racial cleansing. Some communities play ostrich as sharpshooters patrol their rooftops. And the general paranoia leads others to kill anyone who steps on their properties. Nor is there any apparent way out now that the Furies have been unleashed. The president has engaged in war crimes by bombing his citizens and shooting journalists on the White House lawn. But the Western Forces out to depose him are far from heroes. They kill their prisoners of war, shoot surrendering civilians, and pose with their trophy kills. Further, we’re told that once they dispatch the president, they’ll start fighting each other.

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Instead of siding with any of the combatants, Garland sides with his journalists. It’s not surprising: He grew up around reporters; his godfather was a foreign correspondent; and as a youth, he wanted to follow in his footsteps, going so far as to fake press credentials to access foreign hotspots. If polarization is the force driving us to ruin, Garland believes that trust in unbiased journalists is the way back to common ground. This may seem naïve in an age of media silos, but it’s also the hope of his protagonist, Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst). A hardened, award-winning photojournalist, she confesses, “Every time I survived a war zone and got the photo, I thought I was sending a warning home: Don’t do this.” Lee has always compartmentalized her feelings from the horrors she records: Her job is not to intervene, but to witness, leaving moral judgments to her viewers. But as civil war consumes her country, she finds it increasingly difficult to detach herself. 

Lee’s struggle is intensified by her relationship with Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), a wet-behind-the-ears wannabe who shoots in arty black and white. Jessie idolizes Lee who, in turn, sees her younger self in the rookie. Their deeply moving relationship is the emotional heart of the story and the crux of the climax. Both actors are magnificent. Dunst’s eyes betray bitter experience, her cheeks are drawn with distress, yet Jessie’s presence can make her smile, laugh, and glow. As growing maternal instincts make Lee’s professional detachment impossible, Dunst provides an acting masterclass as she navigates the road to nervous breakdown. Spaeny is her equal, her young face rippling terror and excitement in an electrifying transformation from nervous rookie to heedless risk-taker. 

Wagner Moura has fun in the role of Lee’s colleague Joel, an adrenaline junkie who thrives on near-death experiences and post-combat camaraderie. And Stephen McKinley Henderson as Lee’s mentor, Sammy, is solid and avuncular as an old, out-of-shape newshound, out for one last rodeo. Kirsten Dunst’s real-life husband Jesse Plemons deserves a special mention for his chilling cameo as the scariest good ole boy since Bill McKinney told Ned Beatty to “squeal like a pig” in Deliverance. His performance, highlighted in every trailer, is the result of pure serendipity. Plemons was offered the role at the last minute when the actor originally cast dropped out a week before production. 

Garland is just as strong behind the camera as he is with his actors. He has the confidence to take his time during the subdued scenes that punctuate the carnage; lingering closeups reveal a wealth of nuanced emotion and deepen our concern for his characters. But when it’s time for action, his choreography is swift and clean. Garland understands the power of silence, too, and how to use it to contrast with the wild scoring of his longtime collaborators Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow. Everything builds to the finale, an assault on Washington that ends in a bullet-charged race through the White House. Instead of the bewildering breakneck cuts typical of most battle scenes, Garland’s military maneuvers are easy to follow. At times, he zigzags with the soldiers, as if embedded with the troops. Alternately, he swoops over the action to provide a bird’s eye view. It is bravura, heart-stopping work. 

The ending is entirely satisfying. We’ve known from the beginning that there will be no easy resolution to the fighting and that each of our journalist’s stories will lead to specific ends. So, we are left with questions. What do we do when things fall apart? Can we trust journalists to document our present so we can understand our world? If not, how can we build a future? The answers are not obvious, and true to previous form, Garland resists neat closure and easy moralizing. The experience is thoughtful, troubling, and spectacular. See it in an IMAX theater if you can.

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