Critic’s Notebook: The Compellingly Packaged Cowardice of ‘Civil War’

Tense, disturbing, riveting, Alex Garland’s dystopian film Civil War examines an existential threat preying on the American sub-conscious: What would happen if the political and social divisions cleaving the United States ultimately collapse the nation into the abyss? What if the wars of rhetoric, of culture, of values, cause a series of irreparable breaks, whole states secede and we descend into an actual war?

These are menacing questions made palpable because many of us feel we’re already at the brink. As we swirl in a civil war of ideas, a civil war of ideologies, a civil war in public discourse and policy that has created two completely different frames of reality, more than 40 percent of Americans polled just two years ago by YouGov and The Economist said they believe the nation could turn so far on itself that a civil war, a military conflict, is possible within this decade.

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Great storytelling requires an answer to the question left hanging in the center of Garland’s otherwise solid film: How in the world did it come to this? It is a question that vexes both the film and the viewer. Civil War tells us bad things are happening, but never tells us why they are happening.

The film is certainly not without power. Gripped from the opening montage to the film’s final shot, I jumped and shook in my seat often enough to spill my popcorn. More than that, I am haunted by the familiarity of the film’s images of torture and terror, images consistent with the North American Experience. They include a mass grave, like the pits filled with Native American children as far north as Canada and the one filled with contemporary migrants down in the Southwest, in Falfurrias, Texas. There are bodies hung in effigy, like the thousands of documented racial terror lynchings of Black people that took place primarily in the American South from the Reconstruction through World War II and the nearly 20 Chinese immigrants lynched in Los Angeles in 1871.

There is so much blood in this soil, and the film imagines even more, a slow drip from mangled bodies — but for what cause?

In Civil War, as journalists Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst), Joel (Wagner Moura), Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henerson) and Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) travel through the war-torn Mid-Atlantic, taking a route through West Virginia to get from New York to Washington, D.C., they maintain their journalistic integrity and an innate compulsion to document the truths driving them into the deadliest zone of military combat. By visually documenting the tragedy of a not-so-distant future with impartiality, these journalists demonstrate heart and guts and even glory, but few opinions. Aside from one expression of passionate frustration with an American president who has disrupted norms and engaged in acts of authoritarianism, there is no commentary. The only scene that finds them intervening, attempting to make an impact on rising tensions, and changing a likely outcome, is one in which they are trying to save the lives of their colleagues, and not a single photograph is taken.

This is also the scene in which Jesse Plemons delivers the line that guts the emotional center of the film: “What kind of American are you?”

This should be the line that leads the audience to the point of origination for this conflict. Are we fighting over immigration? Is it about race? Has the war started because of the water shortage? The film would be stronger even if it made explicitly clear that no one really knows what the fight is about, that the issues have become as unrecognizable as the bodies that are now dead because of them.

In one scene, in a strip of a small town, where water is so abundant that lawns are watered with sprinklers hooked to hose lines, a salesgirl pouts when out-of-towners distract her from a great book, and an old woman, her shirt starched, walks a small dog without fear. There are rooftop snipers everywhere. This is a place where the people came together to keep the chaos out. In the filmmaker’s vision, American life exists only because of armed patrols.

So, what is America?

No one in the film knows the answer to that simple question delivered by Plemons, but everyone watching it knows why those Black and Brown bodies are in a deep, open grave tended by the unnamed soldier he plays.

America, Civil War suggests, is coming to this country from Hong Kong and then being killed for coming to this country from Hong Kong. We see the murder long before the trigger is pulled. We know the “foreigners” will die. And we know why.

But Civil War does not linger on themes consistent with the actual Civil War. Characters with an ethnocentric worldview are the anomaly. In this movie, Black and Brown people work with one another and with white folk who are not murderous hicks. This inter-racial coalition feels fresh and astute. Both the suffering and the triumphs of our nation have always crossed racial lines, and the film captures that reality.

In the safe space the journalists visit for food and rest on their journey to D.C., a UN-style organization is providing tents and sustenance, and all the people of this crazy country are represented in full joy. They are weary, unhoused by secession and death and a three-term president who tilted the nation over the edge, but they have books and jump ropes. Even hula hoops. And they have each other. They are refugees in their own nation, in the reality of a civil war, but they are not being starved or shot in this camp. This is not a sundown town where the romanticized past can only exist because armed men patrol to guard the folk isolated together. This is an old stadium, covered in graffiti that imagistically conveys the chaos of war.

Unfortunately, none of the graffiti expresses the causes of the war. Why has this happened? Surely that would be a topic of discourse among the grown-ups in the camp, yet even here, in a place where characters have an opportunity to eat and sleep in relative safety, Civil War never fully explains why there is a civil war.

The great war film Casablanca shows the audience that the cause of that conflict is Nazi aggression. In that classic, the bad guys wear swastikas, political propaganda peels against town walls, and a bottle of Vichy water is tossed in the rubbish bin as love turns from romance to brotherhood in a surprise ending that commits to enduring freedom for all. Love does not conquer all “in this crazy, mixed-up world,” as Rick explains to Elsa. They must separate because they are all still needed to fight on, and one thing is clear despite the iconic fog that shrouds the triangle of lovers: Elsa will never see Rick again. Indeed, Rick will likely not survive that war, but he will save the people.

In Civil War, a Black woman saves the people. As she works with men who are of varying shades lighter than her to pursue the president, to kill him on sight, her leadership becomes more apparent. Unflinching, she is tired of this mess and is here to fix it. But fixing it isn’t easy. The film remains chaotic and startling through the end.

The main characters are drawn into this chaos. They want to witness the worst of the human psyche — not escape it in some dystopian idyll or pretend it isn’t happening on a farm somewhere in Missouri or a ranch somewhere in Colorado. As they inch closer to their point of focus, the authoritarian president, the man who violated democratic norms, these journalists grow in their leadership. They become fearless. As bullets sing past their faces, they even smile at one another. The audience believes that, inching forward with them, we are inching toward some meaningful, useful, substantive, perhaps tide-changing truth.

Instead, Lee Smith dies to save her inner child, and Jessie captures Lee’s literal fall from towering figure of journalistic integrity to martyr in stunning still images that flash on the screen. But this dramatic scene does not have the same impact as two figures disappearing in the fog of war. Rick gives up one lover to free all the people, the broad swath of humanity pursued by genocide and starvation and fear. Lee Smith gives up all the people, those suffering the same terrors in Civil War, for one person — her younger Self.

By the very end of the film, the audience knows bad presidential leadership enabled the war but still not the reason for the war in the first place. Why is this happening? That is an important question in this real-world moment, as tensions older than our actual Civil War have resurfaced; divisions feel like cavernous, impossible gulfs; everyday voters only half-joke that they will move to Canada if their candidate does not win; the wealthiest elites are collecting passports to hedge their bets in case of a national emergency. We’re living in a country where I have a Jewish friend who says he has secured a personal account overseas because he will not wait for them to order his loved ones onto a train; where a U.S. senator from the great state of Texas has publicly stated that he could see a future where he would take NASA, the oil, and the military and secede from the rest of America.

Casablanca endures because it spoke to a moment as “crazy and mixed-up” as this one, and nudged the country away from its isolationist inaction. Civil War does not resonate like that classic, because it does not explicitly address this moment. We as a people cannot fix a problem we cannot name.

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