Civil War is dystopian film written and directed by Alex Garland starring Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, Cailee Spaeny and Stephen McKinley Henderson. It was released in April in theaters in America and worldwide, and recently began streaming online.

The film takes place at an unspecified time in the future after nineteen states have succeeded from the United States and are engaged in a civil war against the federal government. Although various factions are mentioned in the film, the largest (and most prominent) is called the Western Front which is—strangely enough—a union between Texas and California. Contrary to a positive and reconciliatory speech given at the beginning of the movie by the U.S. president (played by Nick Offerman) who is serving a third term, federal forces are facing total defeat.

Two veteran war correspondents, photographer Lee Smith (Dunst) and journalist Joel (Moura), are sending in their reports from a hotel after witnessing a suicide bomber takeout a tanker truck that was in the process of handing out water to civilians. There they meet a young aspiring photographer named Jessie (Spaeney) and Sammy, an elderly veteran New York Times reporter (Henderson). Joel and Lee reveal to Sammy that they are planning a dangerous drive south from New York to Washington D.C. in order to try and get one last interview with the president before the capital is ultimately taken over by the Western Front forces. Despite Sammy warning that federal forces have been shooting reporters on sight, he still asks to go with them, at least as far as Charlottesville, Virginia, where the Western Front is mustering their forces for their final assault. Over Lee’s objections, they also bring Jessie along who wishes to learn the trade.

The rest of the film plot is similar to the 1979 film Apocalypse Now, as the four journalists embark on a 225-mile journey where they encounter all manner of people, scenes and battles. From the horrific and the intense to the ridiculous and the surreal, the backdrop of Civil War is a war-torn landscape in a country that has devolved from a nation into a collection of autonomous states, and ultimately into chaos and tribalism.

A Disordered Story and Plot

I first became aware of Civil War several months before it was released from a podcast that I regularly follow. The premise of the film seemed to mirror the numerous speculations, in the media, online, and in polls, regarding whether or not America was headed towards civil war. The burning question I had about the film was how Hollywood would portray such a war, i.e. who would be shown as the tyrants, and who would be seen as the freedom fighters.

My first impression after seeing Civil War was that the freedom fighters were a stand-in for the red state MAGA crowd, and the timid white-haired president was supposed to be Joe Biden as the leader of an overbearing federal government. It also appeared to mirror the prevailing contemporary trope of a cultural conflict between rural, conservative fly-over America and the Coastal (or Beltway in the film’s case) elites. A scene where a female suicide bomber carries an American flag, and another with a battle between federal troops and irregulars in Hawaiian shirts (much like the real-life extremist group the Boogaloo Bois, who are incorrectly pegged as “far-right” by mainstream sources) contributed to my initial conclusions.

However, after listening to the review by members of the podcast who had alerted me to the film, I realized there were many things I had missed when watching it. This included scenes where the president uses superlative words and phrases similar to those of Donald Trump, the fact that some of the factions had names like “the New  People’s Army” or the “Maoist militia,” and a black female Navy SEAL taking part in the final assault on D.C. Most blatant of all though, was a scene which showed soldiers dumping bodies into a mass grave while asking the reporters, “What kind of American” they were, before coldly executing two reporters from Hong Kong.

As a consequence, I was left with the question: is Civil War Hollywood’s take on the “bloodbath” that people like Nancy Pelosi, Rachel Maddow or Maxine Waters are warning will happen if Trump becomes president again? Or is it their commentary on what a MAGA uprising will look like if Trump loses the upcoming election and refuses to concede the results?

The Backstory is Not the Story

The answer is neither. There is not enough information given in the storyline for one to be able to craft a complete backstory or overall narrative about what caused the civil war that is shown in the film. One critic at the New Yorker has even complained about this lack of a backstory by noting that we are shown a “visually recognizable world but downplays real-world politics, leaving out the particular ideologies that make this catastrophic conflict seem a part of our time.” In other words, the biggest complaint of this film which is wonderfully acted, well-shot and definitely has moving story, is that it doesn’t offer the audience any connection to (let alone any insight into) our current zeitgeist.

According to the film’s creator Alex Garland, all of this was intentional. He was very specific in interviews that he wanted the reasons behind to the civil war in the movie to be vague and open to multiple interpretations. Thus, the film is not about politics or ideology, but more of a general commentary on two particular issues.

It is first and foremost a story about hardships, and the horrors that the characters witness as war correspondents, sometimes even surpassing what is experienced by many soldiers. Throughout the film photographers and journalists are fully embedded with troops and in the thick of the fighting, with the soldiers often taking special care to protect them. However, this eventually takes a toll on their psyches and their souls, and we see how they eventually have to turn off a part of their humanity and begin to engage in a sort of morbid voyeurism so that they can become “good” at what they do. This transformation is cleverly shown throughout the film, whenever violent moments occur, with the sound muted and the scene moving from color to black and white, which is done to emphasize how Jessie is able to tune out her surroundings in order to get the perfect shot.

The second issue the film comments on is a grim reminder that current talk about a “national divorce,” or that the 2024 election will likely lead to a civil war no matter who wins, can have significant consequences. But granted, the scenario presented in the film is logically something that would take a decade or more to occur, since the kind of political/social breakdown and the forming of armies large enough to mount an assault on the nation’s capital would not happen overnight. Furthermore, a rational case can be (and has already been made) as to why a full-blown civil war is unlikely to happen in the U.S. for a host of reasons, such as the disruption it would cause to our economy, the ruining our infrastructure, and the fact that it would make us a prime target for foreign invasion.

Nevertheless, as the channel Whatifalthist has said on the topic of civil wars, “wars like this go from people LARPing until they stop and the LARPing turns’s all fun and games until the Nerf guns get switched out for AR-15’s.” In other words, the reasons why a civil war might start may seem rational, but the specific event or actions that trigger violent combat are rarely rational. Rather, they are the results of strong and smoldering sentiments and passionate emotions that break out into bloodshed in a way that are likely to surprise those who find themselves participating in the opening skirmishes.

The combat shown in Civil War is as brutal and uncompromising as our current political and cultural rhetoric is today, as exemplified by a reference to the President ordering air strikes on major American cities and the showing of battles where no prisoners are taken; especially during the assault on D.C. (where even the White House staff are shown no mercy). This is to say nothing of the “unofficial” killings shown in the film at the local level by thugs or militias who are left to do as they please while the major armies are off fighting in distant battlefields.

A Prescient and Stern Warning about Our Future

During the film’s final battle, as the Western Front invades Washington D.C., there is a scene where a bazooka round destroys the Lincoln Memorial. The allusion is obvious, in that Lincoln was president during our nation’s Civil War, but I think there is something even more to this scene.

To most of us Lincoln is one of our nation’s finest presidents, the great emancipator who may have started the war to preserve the Union, but who finished it in order to preserve a union free of slavery. However, there is another side to his legacy. A darker one which has caused some to paint him as an “American Dictator” that quashed the constitutional rights and civil liberties of multitudes of Americans in order to win the war. A war that turned our language from “the United State are” to “the United State is,” meaning that Federalism ultimately gave way to a nearly imperial nation characterized by a formidably strong central government. The plain fact, however, is that both of those aspects of Abraham Lincoln can be true at the same time, and the destruction of the Lincoln Memorial in the film seems to make that point.

There may be noble reasons for going to war, but in the end such a war would undoubtedly devolve into an unbridled (and unhinged) battle of wills with both sides seeking to win at all costs. Yes, of course, the original aims of such a war would always be at the forefront of the combatants, but in the midst of such stated intentions it becomes clear that revenge and the elimination of obstinate groups of people is not out of the question. This is to say nothing of what would happen after the war in terms of who would rule, and under what terms?

Civil War is a grim reminder that unless we as a nation, culture, and society can learn to lean into “the better angels of our nature” (as Lincoln himself said) in the midst of all of our political bickering and culture warring, the alternative is not something to be hoped or wished for. For in a scenario involving a second civil war, it is very hard to see anyone coming out as the “winner.”

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