Civil War Is the Loveliest Monument to Both-Sides Nonsense Yet

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Movies Features Alex Garland
Civil War Is the Loveliest Monument to Both-Sides Nonsense Yet

Do you remember the beginning of Red Dawn? I do. One of the stupidest movies with one of the most odiously jingoistic and patriarchal underlying worldviews still has an advantage on Alex Garland’s Civil War, by virtue of its howler of an opening chyron.

Say what you will about Red Dawn, a movie dumber, perhaps, than Orson Scott Card’s writing on this very subject: It knows what side it is on. This is more than you can say for Civil War, the confused but pretty ode to Old School War Journalism that seems to understand neither war nor journalism. I write about film a lot, so I can say this is not a bad film. I also was a nobody Midwestern journalist from 2008-2013, a time that further entrenched the actual divisions between actual Americans even as it destroyed the sorts of institutions I worked for that are supposed to be as objective as Civil War is trying to be. So I can also say that Civil War is fucking stupid.

I really only need one example to prove this. It’s somewhere in the second reel, when a green photographer (for which outlet is she reporting?) narrates the main character’s own resume to her—one item is that she got photos of “the ANTIFA Massacre.” Writer/director Alex Garland somehow wrote this in a script and, presumably, never had anybody punch it up.

I got told over and over again while I was growing up that we were in the Information Age, in much the same way my parents grew up in the Space Age. We must be past it now and fully into the Misinformation Age if nonsense like this makes it into a movie that got cut and printed, where Kirsten Dunst had to be in a scene with a line like that. Nobody comes to Paste for breaking news about protests or riots or politics, but just because you should always speak the truth when you have somebody’s attention, here goes: There is no “Antifa.” It is not an extant entity. It is a broad description of personal ideology, meant to indicate someone is against fascism, which is an actual political stance that exists in the world.

The line of dialogue would make as much sense if it were “the Underhand Toilet Paper Roll Massacre,” if we’re looking for classifications about which people may stridently disagree yet which have no treasurer or petitions for peace talks with any government. Captain America: The Winter Soldier at least namechecked the ELN, an actual Colombian left-wing outfit, when it wanted to give Robert Redford’s character some grit.

Civil War is like that throughout—a surface-level understanding of “conflict” or “controversy” without any interest in interrogating the reasons for it any more deeply. Garland, whose Annihilation adaptation featured arresting imagery that told its story without telling you its story, has written himself into a corner on this one. He wants war imagery, the ultimate conflict and thus the ultimate opportunity for his intrepid main characters to be the ultimate journalists. (The main players are Dunst, Cailee Spaeny, Wagner Moura, and poor Stephen McKinley Henderson, who bites it in the penultimate setpiece, along with most of the other characters of color in the film. I’m not going any further into their characters because our Jacob Oller already covered them in his review and they’re all of them infuriatingly one-note.)

But, because his script refuses to explain why America is at war, Garland manages to say nothing about the nature of the conflict and nothing about journalism, in either imagery or dialogue, which contains some thudding duds. The central conceits that we do receive—California and Texas are some faction called “The Western Forces,” and apparently there are other factions (Who? Where? Why? Where are the main characters from, and to whom do they ostensibly owe allegiance? How in the hell would cogent regional factions even form in the continental United States, which has relatively reliable and well-developed highways and whose central federal authority is drowning in tanks, drones, spy planes and various other weapons that render the Second Amendment a joke?)

Civil War’s episodic structure sees the war photographer protagonists traveling from New York City to Washington, D.C. in what they know are the final days of this conflict. They believe, against all reason, that they can get an interview with the President (Nick Offerman), seen in the opening scene stumbling over his address to the nation. Everybody knows he is putting on a brave face. The characters practice questions they’ll ask him that are supposedly Eerily Revealing of the Situation: He’s performed drone strikes on Americans, he’s in his third term, etc. They instead reveal nothing. If Garland is pointing out that Obama and Trump both blew up a lot of people while in office, he’s also not bothering to tell us who is being blown up or why.

Other episodes feature the photogs hitting the deck alongside a pair of snipers who are pinned down by another sniper. When directly asked who they work for, they refuse to say. Another—this is the part where poor Henderson dies valiantly so the white folk can feel sad—features Jesse Plemons as the leader of a pack of racist shooters who are dumping bodies into a pit. He executes the Asian characters for not being from America, but there’s no statement on what faction he’s with or if he even is with one. It’s random racialized violence that refuses to take a stand on who is doing the racialized violence. There is a scene where the photogs are embedded with some guys—we don’t know who, we don’t know why—as they try to take a high enemy position. This fire team the photogs are with are all wearing Hawaiian shirts under their Kevlar. Are they local militia? Is this the standard uniform of the California contingent? Did all their houses burn down while only their vacation clothes in the trunk of the car survive, or do they value their lives so little that they go into a firefight in clothing you can spot a mile off?

Civil War is so dedicated to refusing to take a side that it even shows in its credits: There is footage in this movie from Andy Ngo, a right-wing parody of a journalist who has come to prominence in an age defined by a concerted effort to destroy journalism. The credits also thank Helen Lewis, who has written on feminism, said she’s pro-trans unless you want to share locker rooms or rape shelters, and to my knowledge has zero war photography experience. (So on balance, Garland has catered to political net neutrality and avowedly pro-trans sympathies except in one of the major areas where they need support and acceptance: Truly the ideal average American ideological outlook!)

Civil War isn’t a bad movie in its technique. The performances aren’t bad performances. There are interesting ideas when the movie tries to frame these conflicts from the perspective of the war photographers—stopping on black-and-white freeze-frames in the midst of battle, the roaring of machine guns and grenades interrupted by the click of a camera’s shutter. It’s just that Garland is not at all interested in the central conceit of his premise when everybody in the audience reasonably cannot help but be interested in it. Right here today, we have governors defying the federal government so that they can torture refugees at the border, unhinged patriarchs getting into standoffs with the Bureau of Land Management, and an ex-president who tried to pressure the country’s military brass to gun down protesters. We’re already almost here, and Garland is over here suggesting that there is some scenario—in the same universe where the strong nuclear forces hold together the atoms of which we are all composed—in which California and Texas would agree enough on fucking anything to join into a military coalition.

You should speak truth when you have the chance. So here it is: Conservative forces in the United States are exhibiting fascist tendencies, pushing for a world that the normal, politically oblivious average American would never want to live in. I know this because this is the world they are currently bringing about, from their positions of entrenched minoritarian power. If the big boogaloo happens, it will be because they force the issue, not because of Black Lives Matter protesters or poor trans kids. To claim the sort of symmetry between these positions that would cause a land war across the Lower 48 is ludicrous.

The last scene of the movie (spoiler alert) is a raid on the White House. It is the definitive proof of Truffaut’s comment that there really isn’t such a thing as an anti-war movie, because war looks so compelling onscreen. Garland lays on the fireworks, and in the end we see the moment where the photogs and the Western Forces hook the big fish. The President gets executed right in front of one of the photogs—I’ll bet she wished she went with a DSLR with rapid-fire rather than a film camera she has to manually advance. We are supposed to feel some grim catharsis, after the deaths of main characters and the harrowing journey here.

Moura’s character looms over the president in the moment before he is killed and asks him for a quote like he’s giving out the one-liner before pulling the trigger himself. I know it’s because half his crew got mulched on the way over, but what did they die for? I don’t know the nature of the guy’s tyranny. What is being toppled? What will rise in its place?

Those are the actual questions journalism asks, or should be asking. Civil War doesn’t care.

Kenneth Lowe requires about three and a half minutes in a C-41 approved developer at about 38 degrees C, followed by six and a half minutes in bleach, a wash in a stop bath of about three minutes, fixer for about another six and a half, a second wash, a minute and a half in stabilizer, and a good 20 minutes to dry. You can follow him on Twitter @IllusiveKen until it collapses, on Bluesky, and read more at his blog.

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