Give the People What They Want

On Alex Garland's Civil War

Alex Garland films are closed systems. It takes approximately one minute for Ex Machina to descend from normal life into the remote compound where the rest of the movie’s plot will unfold. Annihilation spends a little bit more time on the outside, but its immersion in another reality is even more literal; most of the action takes place on a patch of land where the normal rules of biology no longer apply. In both cases, the effect is the same: entering the movie’s universe feels like falling into a nightmare, or beginning a Dantean journey into the inferno. First, you drift off; next, you look around and realize you’re in Hell.

Garland’s newest feature, Civil War, follows the same pattern, but this time there’s not even a minute of windup. From the first shot, we’re about fourteen months into the titular bloody conflict between Washington D.C. and the secessionist Western Forces. As for how we got there: we feel asleep, and now we’re having a nightmare.

A lot of critics — both amateur and professional, with the former group including a lot of people who haven’t actually seen the movie — have dinged Civil War for the implausibility and deliberate vagueness of its setup. A military alliance between California and Texas doesn’t make a whole lot of sense; furthermore, we have no idea why they seceded. All we know about the U.S. president (played by Nick Offerman and referred to only as “the president”) is that he’s serving an illegal third term in office and that he has ordered airstrikes on civilian population centers. No one appears to be a Democrat or a Republican. We don’t even really know what year the film takes place in: it seems to be the near future, but all the technology onscreen is at least ten years old.

While a few commentators chalk the fuzzy battle lines up to Garland’s apparent ignorance of American politics (he’s British), others, like The New Republic’s Osita Nwanevu, see more cynical forces at play. “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,” he writes. Elsewhere, Nwanevu calls Civil War “fascinatingly empty.” Others have called it “apolitical,” “evasively apolitical,” or “post-political.”

But there are a lot of ways for a work of art to be political. Even if you don’t believe the dictum that all art is political, we can surely take it as axiomatic that any movie about a modern-day war between the states is political in some way or another, even if it never identifies a clear Team Red and a clear Team Blue. The question is not whether Civil War has a political message but about the content of that message.

If Garland keeps partisan politics out of Civil War, it’s because he wants us to pay attention to something else. What matters in this movie is less any character’s party identification than the ways in which they react to a homegrown shooting war. As Jamelle Bouie of The New York Times writes in his newsletter, the movie “shows people, on both sides of the conflict, relishing the opportunity to kill — taking pleasure in the chance to wipe their enemies from the earth.” This is a movie about the type of individual who would thrive in a civil war, or at least those who think they would thrive.

Consider what little we do know about the various combatants. One all-male group can be identified by their Hawaiian shirts, suggesting a certain kinship with the real-world Boogaloo boys. The terrifying, unnamed character played by Jesse Plemons is a hardcore nationalist. There is a throwaway line referring to “Portland Maoists” that echoes the real-world unrest in Portland after George Floyd’s murder. In each case, the film obliquely references actually existing groups that openly pine for — or have even attempted to execute — revolutionary violence in the United States.

So this is a movie about what would happen if they got their wish. And what happens is mostly killing, war crimes, and more killing. If the movie has a clear message, it’s about what happens once you abandon the metaphorical battlefield of democratic politics for a literal battlefield: abstract principles recede into irrelevance while everyone scrambles to become the perpetrators of violence instead of its victims. There’s a scene where Joel, one of the journalist protagonists, asks a soldier, mid-firefight, which side he’s fighting for. The soldier replies: “Someone's trying to kill us. We are trying to kill them.”

About those journalist protagonists: they get the same jaundiced treatment as the pseudo-Boogaloos. (Not to make this whole post into a rant about how critics have misinterpreted the film, but if you think Civil War “valorizes” war correspondents, then you’ve completely missed the point.) At multiple points in the movie, you see reporters and war photographers get viscerally excited by scenes of bloodshed; Joel even jokes around with the Boogaloos after watching them commit a war crime.

Documenting the carnage may or may not be an essential task — the movie is a little ambiguous on that point — but Garland is, at best, profoundly ambivalent about the documenters. The more human and empathetic they are, the harder it is for them to do their jobs, or even stay alive.

In that sense, Civil War is an act of witness that also happens to be about the moral limits of witnessing. (See my earlier post about “complicity plot” movies for other examples.) Some people thrill to the notion of a civil war because they want to kill; others just want to sit back and watch the killing unfold. Garland seems to suggest that we, the moviegoing audience, are in the latter category — otherwise, we would have stayed home.

And so he gives us what we want, but not the way we want it. The central question of Civil War is not, “how, precisely, would it happen here?” Instead, the central question is: “Here you are. This is what you wanted. How do you like it now?”