How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Civil War

a screen from Civil War, with Kirsten Dunst holding a telephoto camera as three other characters stand behind her

During the Trump years, there was a popular Twitter joke format that involved linking to a news story about events in the US and imagining how the headline would be written if the same events had happened in a third world country. This was used to demonstrate how differently newspapers cover resistance movements and more nakedly corrupt behavior of the state when it happens in the West.

What's sort of fascinating about Alex Garland's Civil War is that it seems to be a long-form version of this joke. The film asks: what if an American Civil War was covered, thought about and narrativized the same way that civil wars and conflicts abroad are covered? The answer is, politically? It sucks shit.

In its first weekend, the movie has been doing gangbusters, especially for a dystopian political action thriller. It is A24's highest budget movie and Alex Garland, who wrote and directed, a filmmaker I really liked, has hardly a single hit film as a director. His last film, Men, a weirdo gender essay film as much as a horror movie, flopped hard. His directorial debut Ex Machina was did well for a small budget sci-fi, but hardly made him Hollywood royalty. His 2018 Annihilation, which I think is one of the best American films of the 21st century, got declared unmarketably weird by its studio, got a small release stateside and went direct to Netflix in the rest of the world.

Civil War, a piece of radical-centrist, middle brow bothsideism is not only sure to be the most successful film he has made, it is also by some margin the worst. But to my pleasant surprise, it's not a completely terrible and evil film. It is just a deeply mediocre one, one that on its surface is troubling and reactionary--and doesn't leave me hopeful for his future output--but which contains ambivalent and strange pleasures outside of the control of its own thudding allegory.

In the film, we follow hot-shot photojournalist Lee (Kirsten Dunst), joined by her writer colleague Joel (Wagner Moura), excited rookie Jessie (Callie Spaeny), and aging old timer Sammy (Stephen Mckinley Henderson) as they attempt to travel from New York to Washington, D.C. through the war zones of West Virginia and Pennsylvania and interview the President before D. C. falls to a secessionist uprising.

The film is structured with that classic war-is-hell narrative in which protagonists descend into more and more horrifying and upsetting scenes and scenarios and lose pieces of their innocence, their sanity, or their lives, as they draw ever nearer to the center of the action, that long tradition whose cultural touch stones go from Dante's Inferno to Heart of Darkness to Apocalypse Now.

The insurrection is being lead by the so called Western Forces, which is a state and army made up, we are told, by Texas and California, in a very brief bit of exposition in the opening. They are one of a number of secessionist nations, (alongside Florida, there's also one reference to the "Portland Maoists") that have begun this civil war.

Imagining civil strife break out across those particular geographic lines is, of course, incoherent as it connects to current America politics. In interviews, Garland has explicitly said he wanted this, wanted to scramble things so that it wouldn't be a clear parable of a particular political moment, to not make it about political party, race or religion--hence the teaming up of archetypal red and blue states Texas and California.

This incoherence is reflected, too, in what little we learn about the President (played by Nick Offerman). We learn, basically, three things about him. The first two are that he executed citizens extrajudicialy and took a third term against constitutional limits – in interviews Garland has said explicitly he's a fascist. But the other policy detail we learn about his tenure is that he disbanded the FBI – he defunded the police. He is some kind of feverish horseshoe-theory fantasy. Garland clearly has no idea what fascism is (see also: thanking Helen Lewis as a consultant in the film's credits and licensing video footage from fascist Andy "concrete milkshake" Ngo), but if the president really was a fascist then the insurgents would be heroic, or at least demonstrably on the right side of history. There is no such respect paid, and they are just as violent and bloodthirsty.

The result is that the politics of the conflict don't make any sense. That would be fine if this were some kind of far-distant future sci-fi epic interested in different questions, but this movie is all about politics, the near-future possibility is the whole appeal, and the story it tells is a deeply ideological one: it's just a story that pretends that the titular Civil War is not, in fact, the important political struggle.

The actual perspective of the film and its screenwriter is much more tellingly demonstrated in one of the action sequences midway through the film, where our intrepid press team gets pinned down by a sniper in a distant building across an open field. As they take cover behind a makeshift structure, they discover a sniper team in ghillie suits and camo has already set up there, pointing their guns back at the sniper. Joel attempts to interview them.

"Who are you? What side are you fighting for? Who is in that building you're shooting at?" They respond to each question with increased hostility, refusing to say anything other than insult him and his intelligence. Eventually, frustrated, they finally say we're being shot at, so we're shooting back. What else do you need to know?

This is the ultimate politics of the film. Not even really right wing, it is liberal anti-politics, the cynical "both sides have their reasons, but ultimately it's just senseless cycles of violence", a perspective I've most often encountered in reflections from war photojournalists and conflict reporters. The cynicism of the person who goes into war zone after war zone, particularly after the Cold War and the collapse of easy ideological shorthands. Journalists who survived Rwanada, Sierra Leone, Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, for whom the traumatized thousand yard stare becomes a kind of glamorous sign of seriousness and wisdom.

This is explicitly the perspective and experience of Dunst's Lee (she has PTSD flashbacks to earlier civil conflicts, memories we see in horrible detail, particularly the brutal tire-immolation of an African man) who is counterposed to the kind of daredevil, fun-loving but barely holding it together traumatized Joel. Early in the film Jesse, the 23 year old aspiring photojournalist who idolizes Lee, asks her about a particular scene of violence they've come upon "what does this mean". Lee shrugs. "We don't know, we don't say that. We record. We observe. We let others tell us the meaning." (Quotes here are approximations from memory)

This attitude of noble indifference to politics, believing only in some kind of "truth" captured in the camera, is deep boomer lore, but it also reflects the way US journalists cover the ideology of civil conflicts abroad, draining them of political meaning and turning them into unknowable and undecipherable images, "news" events too far from our experience to ever understand beyond their savagery and violence. Case in point, 20 years after the invasion and destruction of Iraq, most Americans don't even know what the difference is between Shia and Sunni Islam, let alone which political powers in the conflict or the broader region are on which side, etc. Symptomatic of the politics behind this kind of dismissal of the personhood and politics of the combatants in civil strife, Civil War reserves all its most brutal on screen violence for black people and people of color.

But while the politics may be totally nonsensical, what the action actually looks like, small squadrons of militias and soldiers facing off in urban and semi-urban abandoned zones, will be very familiar to America news consumers. Civil War is most engaging in its depiction of the violent intimacy and horror of counter-insurgency. In fact, it's pretty clear that the film is processing imagery from our forever war on terror.

In one scene the journalists follow behind a militia squadron climbing a dark apartment block stairwell. (One of them has a Hawaiian shirt on, a Boogaloo boy.) As they tensely climb the stairs, rifles pointed forward, and the journalists snap pictures, it directly evoked often photographed combat in Iraq. The film also features lots of helicopters flying low over bodies of water, strong Vietnam vibes, as well as occasionally nodding to previous visions of American apocalypse (a destroyed helicopter in a mall parking lot outside Pittsburgh evoked Dawn of the Dead, an unwise nod given Romero's masterpiece still has more powerful political resonance 45 years on than Civil War).

While the film is processing those images of imperial war, it's also clearly processing images of the January 6th coup. There is anxiety here about right wing militias destroying the government and that threat not being taken seriously enough (which again, is nonsense given the president is meant to be a fascist). This is echoed particularly directly in the final action sequence in DC as the Western forces attack the landmarks of federal power.

This combination of image processing and deep political disinterest is, I believe, why it is so popular and so successful at this moment. It is preparing the majority of Americans, or at least the bourgeois "everyday" middle class American to which culture addresses itself, to look at the rest of the country the way it looks at wars abroad. It is an ideological version of Foucault's boomerang, a kind of return of the colonial gaze, now turned inward on the American populace.

It is preparing the audience, pleasurably, with horror, thrills and excitement, to see the collapse of the United States, but to see that collapse with the same depoliticized, removed and ultimately sneering gaze of the wise observer who refuses to get involved. It talks about the polarization of American society as equally arbitrary and ahistorical as it is elsewhere. The disorder and violence can only really be resolved by accessing the truth-seeking of the journalist, the magical objective viewpoint.

However, there's also something more strange and ambivalent going on. Because if you treat a US civil war it like it's any other society and you depoliticize and denarrativize it for liberals, well, it might not work. Unlike the political strife of Yemen or Sudan, American liberals are all too familiar with the political stakes in America. You necessarily connect to images that have political resonance, indeed, your movie is sold on those connections, and so it might instead open up a question about not only this movie but the entire framework of war and conflict it operates within.

Part of the horror and indeed the pleasure of this film is watching people attack the White House, watching people fire RPGs at the Lincoln Memorial, watching extreme violent break down through the open spaces of America. In this way, it's not that different from films like Olympus Has Fallen or White House Down: though the narrative itself is fundamentally reactionary it can't help but mobilize much more insurrectionary desires in the audience.

Thus the attempt to depoliticize and contain these desires comes up against the undeniable effects of pleasurably imaging the collapse of American hegemony and order. While it offers liberals a way to look upon such collapse and despair, to understand this tragic "polarization" and conflict through a well-trained intentional non-understanding, it threatens to accidentally unsettle them while offering the rest of us some thrilling and exciting images.

Garland is a very strong director of actors, and is good at pointing the camera, so much of the film is effective despite and against itself, (although the action is much more fun than most of the characterization and dialogue, some of which approaches laughably embarrassing). It's well structured, moving fluidly through a tried and true world of genre tropes. The script is embarrassing dogshit, but a film is much more than a script, and Garland's chops as a director turn a reactionary parable into a fascinating and unstable symptom of the current moment.

The film reveals the deep incoherence, fear, and desire embedded in the liberal consciousness. It yearns for destruction. It knows it deserves it. And yet it is in utter terror. And it sees itself trapped. Behind the lens of a camera, watching everything happen.

Liberals cannot imagine themselves as anything except observers. They cannot imagine themselves taking sides as actors in the political world. Even as they witness it falling apart. Even as their beloved Lincoln Memorial takes a rocket directly to its colonnade, they cannot imagine shooting back at the people who do so.

They cannot imagine acting when things happen outside the orderly system they've convinced themselves is the extent and meaning of politics. And so they watch, and they call their watching journalism and pretend it is the only thing that matters.

While this is film is a dream of an American apocalypse, it is the apocalypse of the American liberal. Garland has called the film a love letter to the importance of journalism, but in fact it is a eulogy, a gravestone for one particular perspective of conflict journalists and geo-politics knowers. Civil War is a perfect document of 2024, and an appropriately incoherent attempt to understand that which liberals refuse to accept: their own irrelevance, their own imminent destruction.