It’s Impossible to Take Alex Garland’s Civil War Seriously

Civil War imagines a crumbling USA torn apart by militias, a crazed president, and murderous ideological rage. The problem is, director Alex Garland never tells us anything about those ideologies. Because then he might be seen as “taking a side.”

Kirsten Dunst as journalist Lee Smith in Civil War. (A24)

There’s a great cast in Civil War, the new film written and directed by Alex Garland. They’re in there giving their all — Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Jesse Plemons, and Nick Offerman — and sometimes achieving memorable effects in underwritten roles. I can still picture Dunst’s glinting, hard-eyed stare as a burnt-out photojournalist crossing the war-torn United States. I can hear Henderson’s rueful tone shift when he indicates he wants to join the little group of reporters on a “suicide mission” because he’s old and ailing and wants to die with his journalistic boots on. And Plemons deserves the rave reviews for his unnerving one-sequence performance as a thuggish militiaman wearing candy apple–red sunglasses and demanding of his terrified captives, “What kind of American are you?”

You’re supposed to name your state of birth, and it’s very unhealthy for you if you give the wrong answer. It’s the second American Civil War, see, which means secession, people fighting on behalf of their states or state-based alliances, roving bands of ultraviolent militia forces, and a lot of which-side-are-you-on confusion on the road.

The weak link in the cast, it seems to me, is Cailee Spaeny (Priscilla Presley in Priscilla) as the aspiring photojournalist in training Jessie Cullen, who hero-worships Dunst’s character, Lee Smith. Jessie’s supposed to be a college-aged young woman of unusual, even obsessive ambition and drive, but she looks about sixteen and not likely to be obsessed with anything more vital than the junior prom.

But there’s a larger problem, in that all of these performances are cast adrift in a confusing American-apocalypse film that never gets its shit together. Garland is so ideologically driven by this point, without having any very compelling points to make — see the way similar “big ideas” torpedo his last film, Men (2022) — that he neglects basic verisimilitude. There are so many points in the film when you’re wondering about the inconsistent behaviors of the characters and the implausible way Garland’s representing the dystopian future of the United States.

“Zombie films do apocalyptic visions so much better,” I thought early in the movie, recalling George Romero’s great Night of the Living Dead/Dawn of the Dead/Day of the Dead trilogy. I also thought of 28 Days Later (2002), the terrific zombie film scripted by Alex Garland, which is looking more and more like the peak of his career. Shortly before Civil War’s release, Garland announced he would no longer direct. It’s a retirement however that he seems to have walked back. I’m a little sorry Garland’s not giving up directing after all because the longer he directs, the more he undercuts his own reputation as a screenwriter.

Still from Civil War. (A24)

Civil War is about four journalists who decide to drive from New York City to Washington DC, a perilous road trip across a no-man’s-land of destruction, factional warfare, and societal collapse. Their goal is to interview the beleaguered dictator-president (Offerman). We’re told he’s having reporters “shot on sight” in Washington, and that’s not presented as an exaggeration, so the three journalists plus one wannabe journlist are indeed on a suicide mission. The president is a vaguely Trumpian figure holed up in the White House, refusing to face the reality that he’s under siege. The film opens on him in close-up as he rehearses his fatuous lines for a public statement announcing that federal forces are on the cusp of achieving the “greatest victory in the history of mankind.”  Getting an interview with such a delusional and dangerous commander-in-chief is, for Dunst’s character, “the only story there is.”

This all comes at the beginning of the film, and it’s already a bewildering claim. Surely journalists are among the very few who could feasibly benefit, at least professionally, from war, chaos, and collapse. After all, in such conditions, practically everything is a story fraught with urgent interest.

Of course, that’s presuming the world of media is still functioning, and Garland’s film can’t seem to make it clear whether it is or it isn’t. We’re told that Lee’s mentor, journalist Sammy (Henderson), is still working for “what’s left of the New York Times,” but if the New York Times is barely functioning, what other news sites are likely to be fully operational? Joel (Moura) is a reporter working for Reuters, it seems, but we never see him or anyone filing copy or expressing any intention of doing so. The internet barely works even at what looks like a posh hotel where they’re staying in NYC.

Meanwhile, people in the heartland whose lives are still untouched by warfare are “trying to pretend this isn’t happening,” so presumably they’re doing their best not to read, watch, or hear the news. Our heroes stumble across a town that’s trying to hold onto business as usual, where a young woman working at a clothing boutique tells them, “We usually try to stay out of it. With everything that’s been going on, it seems like it’s for the best.”

Remember that fantastically intense and concentrated opening sequence in Dawn of the Dead (1978) as the Philadelphia TV station does its last broadcast before getting invaded by zombie hordes, with the few survivors stealing a helicopter and taking off from the station roof just in the nick of time? Remember their flight over American terrain where they have to judge where in rural areas to risk setting down to refuel? And then they finally hole up in that suburban mall where at least there are plentiful supplies of every necessity and even every luxury — only that turns out to be the ultimate American trap?

Oh, the beautifully structured clarity of that narrative. Good times.

The best case you can make for Garland’s narrative is that there’s such a random patchwork of areas that are deemed safe and others that are in total collapse that there’s no telling what conditions are anywhere in this world. So once again, is the media really not functioning, really not able to report on local conditions? If so, why not make that crystal-clear? That total chaos could work to augment terror, but a lot of the time it gets lost in the plot that puts our heroes on a road trip having strange encounters that seem constructed to generate debates about journalistic ethics — which the characters then debate. This is a topic Garland indicates is the key to his project. He wants to celebrate old-fashioned, unbiased, “objective” reporting: “So this is a throwback to an old form of journalism, being told in the manner of that journalism.”

And you know what he’s referring to — the syndrome represented by Fox News vs. MSNBC, TV news channels preaching to either the conservative Republican or liberal Democratic choir. But it’s so shallow a consideration of what “objective” journalism could possibly mean that it hardly rates the self-congratulatory tone of Garland’s remarks.

Luis Buñuel once represented such ethics in a scene from his furiously satirical documentary Land Without Bread (1933), in which a filmmaker refuses to help a dying child lying by the roadside because that would constitute interfering with an objective representation of the reality of the impoverished rural community under examination.

And of course, there’s always Alexander Cockburn’s scathing takedown of PBS’s MacNeil/Lehrer Report, “The Tedium Twins,” as the two stodgy newsmen — leading lights of television journalism in the era Garland is presumably celebrating — debate with maddening, idiotic evenhandedness the issue of whether or not Christ should’ve been crucified and take on with equally bland “objectivity” the pros and cons of cannibalism and slavery.

Garland seems not up to the task of considering his own issues beyond the depth of one millimeter. Lee represents the “correct view,” which is essentially a refusal of moral or ethical considerations: “Once you start asking those questions you can’t stop. So we don’t ask. We record so other people ask.” However she’s so burnt out she’s losing her faith in her own creed. There to take up the flag as she drops it is Jessie, a shutterbug modeling herself on Lee, and Lee’s namesake Lee Miller:“The first photographer into Dachau,” we’re helpfully told. Jessie has to overcome her squeamish emotions in order to record events objectively as they happen.

Nick Offerman as the president of the United States in Civil War. (A24)

Moura’s Joel is an adrenaline junkie who craves combat footage, until he actually runs into armed people with no respect for the press. He’s balanced by Sammy, the old-time humanist and conscience of the group, who’s able to hang onto decency while still doing his job — though we never see him actually do anything related to reporting.

Also part of Garland’s objectivity-worship is his commitment to what he considers to be political evenhandedness. In spite of all we know of the violent factions currently operating in the United States, Garland’s film features “Portland Maoists” apparently on the rampage and an ongoing war of secession led by the “Western Forces” (WF), an alliance of Texas and California, the last two states in the union likely to get together politically.

I couldn’t have sneered harder at that Texas-California revelation in the film — so clearly planted early on to announce the film’s “both sides” bona fides. Mustn’t offend the political hard right by connecting the dots between what’s happening right now and what’s likely to happen in a dystopian future! Even more maddening is the reference to Lee’s career-making photo of “the Antifa massacre,” without indicating whether members of Antifa were massacred or did the massacring.

This strategy seems to be paying off at the box office, which reports robust takings, especially in unexpectedly “overperforming” red states in the South and Southwest. Which figures because Garland aligns himself completely with the mainstream view that all forms of disruptive struggle are bad, whether you’re fighting for justice or injustice, equality or inequality, democracy or fascism. Civil War is a generically cautionary tale summed up by Lee, who says lugubriously, “Every time I survived a war zone, I thought I was sending a warning home: don’t do this. Yet here we are.”

In opposing conflicts of all kinds in a facile “war is hell” stance, the film’s lack of concern over exactly who is doing what to whom and for what cause is so stupid and reductive, it’s impossible to take it seriously. Was the first civil war — you know, the one that freed the slaves — just another example of pointless carnage with no purpose? Does it not matter which side started the war — what each side was fighting for — what was at stake? In America, we’re still living out the repercussions of that war, and a more honest movie about the second civil war would’ve taken on exactly those fault lines of what can corrupt democracy in ways that have been rumbling through our society ever since.

Garland’s gutless approach encompasses only the vaguest goal to get people talking, “to provoke — not in an antagonistic way, but in a causal way — to provoke a thought process and exchange.”

Move over, MacNeil and Lehrer, Alex Garland is here to join your ranks and make it the Tedium Triplets.