Civil War Is a Brutal, Intense No-Sidesing of American Political Divisions

Alex Garland's latest post-apocalyptic thought experiment is a war movie without a take.


It is at least a little bit ironic that a movie titled Civil War, about a broken America at war with itself, is designed in a way that ensures that it will be divisive. For myself, I found it stirring, stunning, and cunningly crafted. It's a hell of a movie, and with some caveats, a remarkable feat of filmmaking. 

But there is no doubt that it is very much a provocation, and it provokes as much by what it leaves out as by what it includes. 

That's because Civil War is a political movie with no overt politics. It's a war movie in which the nature of the dispute is wholly unclear. It's a movie about journalism and journalistic ethics in which the media as we know it is a hollowed-out shell of itself, almost an afterthought. It's an of-the-moment, extrapolated-from-the-thinkpieces movie about a polarized and divided country that refuses to either explain the causes of that division or propose anything like a solution. If you're looking for a headline, a diagnosis, a lead, a thesis sentence, a compact Tweetable lesson, a talking point for a cable news roundtable, you won't find it. Civil War is designed to leave you feeling empty, exhausted, and adrift. It's a war movie without a take. 

Written and directed by Alex Garland, the writer behind The Beach and 28 Days Later and the mastermind behind Ex Machina, Annihilation, and the still-underappreciated Devs, Civil War is not quite a science fiction movie, but it bears some of the same genre hallmarks. It's a dystopian thought experiment about the nature of humanity and morality in a world where the rules and conventions that are usually taken for granted have broken down.

As with those earlier works, what Garland posits is that the bonds of civil society—the customs and expectations and hidden social rules that ensure that most people act with something like decency and respect toward each other—are far more fragile and contingent than we think. Civilization, in Garland's stories, does not uphold itself. 

When the movie begins, the American civil war is already well underway, to the point where it's almost taken for granted.

The Western Forces (WF), a coalition made up of California and Texas, are making their way toward Washington, D.C., where a president (Nick Offerman) who stayed beyond his second term in office remains. A third faction, the Florida Alliance, is also in play, perhaps in alliance with the WF, perhaps with its own goals. But the nature of the conflict, and the backstory, remains murky.

Garland's script plays coy on what seem like crucial context questions, briefly referencing, for example, an "antifa massacre." But wait, was the massacre against antifa? Or by antifa? If you're looking for answers to questions like what are the precise political aims of the factions? you won't find them. It's war. It's complicated, and it's ugly. Mostly, it's about staying alive. 

Or documenting the brutality. The film's protagonists are a quartet of journalists: There's famous photojournalist Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst) and Joel (Wagner Moura), a writer, both of whom work for Reuters, plus Sammy, an older, heavier journalist who walks with a cane and works for "what remains of The New York Times." And then there's Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), a young woman who idolizes Smith and who talks her way into a car with the other three. They're heading from New York to Washington, D.C., which thanks to the dangers of war, has become an 800-mile trip, to see what happens when the WF finally breaches the White House. 

What follows is a taut, terrifying, increasingly surreal journey through a war-torn, quasi-apocalyptic America where gas station attendants hang looters and scenes of holiday cheer are marked with dead bodies. The quartet of journalists isn't there to stop the war or change its course. They're just there to witness what happens, to record it for others to observe and decide. 

Garland's movie shares the same ethos. It's episodic, fragmented, essentially a twist on the road movie. We see bits and pieces of the war-torn landscape, and watch as the journalists participate in firefights and capture no-context images of desolation and destruction. But there's never a macro view. War, the movie suggests, can only be experienced in fragments, in moments, in scattered stories that don't always add up to something elegant and coherent. 

Jessie, the youngest of the bunch, initially wonders if they can make a difference somehow. She wants to be a force for good in a landscape marked by atrocity. But she is warned off by the older, more cynical journalists she's traveling with. Their job isn't to alter the trajectory of the war, just to capture it. There's a brutal inevitably to their work, a sense of cosmic fatalism. 

With Civil War, then, Garland is not asking the questions you might expect from a movie like this: Why are Americans fighting each other? Who is right on the issues, on the merits? The movie makes a dramatic case that the issues, the merits, the why of it all are mostly beside the point when bullets are whizzing by one's head.

No, Civil War is interested in other questions: What would it feel like to live in an America upended by violent conflict? What would the consequences be? How would the conflict play out in the towns and on the roads of the American East Coast? Because once a nation has arrived at the point of a war, the movie seems to say, the why of it all, the who's right? becomes irrelevant. All that's left is the violence. 

Some viewers will no doubt cast Garland's choice to skirt contentious political issues as a dodge, a cheat, an unwillingness to confront the issues or offend certain parties. Media critics will gripe that his movie takes the View from Nowhere, that it is ultimately an extended exercise in bothsidesing America's political divisions. 

But I found the movie's refusal to participate in that sort of easy partisan debate not only refreshing but clarifying: It's not bothsidesing American politics so much as no-sidesing an ugly and horrific conflict in which no one comes out with the moral high ground. 

Civil War isn't an op-ed in movie form. It isn't a viral clip about how the other side are the real fascists. It's not a sick burn or an empty boast to retweet on social media. It's a movie about what happens after those arguments descend into prolonged violence. Because when that happens, there are no good guys, no winners, no sides worth taking. You can only watch in horror, in scattered bits and fragments that don't quite add up, and then decide for yourself.