Civil Discussion: 1on1 with Alex Garland (CIVIL WAR)

Alex Garland is fighting a new battle.

In the past, Garland has tackled such topics as the dangers of A.I. (Ex Machina) and toxic masculinity (Men). But now, in his latest film, Civil War, the director has set his sights on the brutality of a divided America.

Set in the near future, Civil War depicts America as a nation divided within between two factions. Under the influence of a dictator president (Nick Offerman) in the midst of his third term, the country has reached a boiling point. With rebel factions descending upon the White House, Lee (Kirsten Dunst) and her team of military-embedded journalists race against the clock in order to reach the Capital with the hope of chronicling the historic events that are about to unfold. 

The most notable thing about Civil War is how timely it is. With the US heading towards their next election and national politics feeling more contentious than ever, the film’s willingness to put partisan divides on trial makes it necessary viewing. However, rather than take any particular political side, the director mixes up America’s stereotypical allies and keeps divisive issues vague. Even so, despite the film’s dogmatic elusiveness, Garland argues that the film’s lack of clarity doesn’t mean that it’s neutral.

“To be honest, one thing is not being clear about it in, sort of, movie terms,” he begins. “Clear doesn’t mean they’re neutral. It just means they’re unspecified. I think there are actually clues within it, but it’s to do with the film language. Cinema has, for a long time, been very obsessed with ‘ultra-clarity’: ultra-clear stating the question, and then ultra-clear answering of [it]… Because clarity is, in a way, reassurance. You know exactly where the filmmaker stands and where you stand in relation to the film, and that’s fine. Lots of films can do that, but they don’t all have to do that. 

“This one is more uncomfortable in some respects and less reassuring than that. However, I’d say there are clues. The President, for example, is a fascist… What are they demonstrating their fascism through? Well, one of them is dismantling a legal system that could threaten them. One is by being threatening two journalists… So, they’ve been undermining the Constitution. To me, those things are actually quite clear. They’re, they’re not really coded. They’re just not telegraphed in the way [that] a film normally telegraphs them and gives reassurance. But they are there.” 

In this way, he also believes that his film becomes a celebration of truth through its presentation of the press as heroic figures.

Says Garland, “Ultimately, in some ways, it’s a film in favor of an old-fashioned kind of journalism, where explicit bias was removed from reporting in order that it was trusted. So, the film tries to function like reporters. It makes reporters [into] the heroes.”

Featuring some absolutely stunning work from its cast, the standout remains Dunst. Although her projects have always been diverse, Civil War may be one of her best performances as the grizzled veteran, Lee. According to Garland, he knew that she was the right choice for the role because of her life experience.

“With Kirsten, I didn’t know her, but I sort of knew her [as a viewer]… because she’s been around since she was a child actor,” he states. “She’s one of those few child actors who then made the transition into being an older actor in a literal way. You’ve watched her grow up. I’ve watched her grow up. We all have. What that does is it means, number one, you are very familiar with her as an actor, what her abilities are, that she’s got range that she can contain in something like Melancholia, something really soulful and sad. It’s not all Spider-Man, as it were. There’s lots of shades, lots of dimensions in her. But there’s also a lot of lived experience. In the case of a war photographer, you need that. You need to believe that. And not all actors have access to that kind of sadness or soulfulness.”

Although his works are entirely original, Garland has often told stories that stretch into the realms of classic science fiction. But, with Civil War’s tension feeling grounded in the realities of American politics, it should come as no surprise that its influenced heavily by current events.

Civil War really takes its cues more from nonfiction than from fiction,” Garland explains. “It’s obviously, it’s a fictional story, but its points of reference are things like news footage, documentaries, and lived experience. We… were really careful to avoid some kinds of film grammar at times. I could give an example. It’s kind of a brutal example, but say film has over decades created a grammar about what happens when someone gets shot. So, you’ve seen many films that have big fountains of blood and people flying backwards as if they’re snapped on a cable. There’s something essentially cinematic happening there, in the grammar. But, if you were ever unfortunate enough to see someone get shot or you watched it on some news footage, quite often what you see is it’s just someone falling down as if the lights are being switched off and they just fold and collapse. So, more than anything else, we were using people’s experience of the world in one way or another to inform the look of the film.” 

Asked how he hoped an increasingly divided audience would connect with the film, Garland is intentionally coy with his response.

“That’s up to them,” he suggests. “Here’s one of the realities about language… There’s no real guarantee that you and I will agree, not just on what we’re saying to each other but what is actually being said. Language is complicated. Governments make laws. They write the laws trying to be clear. And then judges and lawyers, their entire profession is about interpreting different meanings of the sentences written… For that reason, you must have had the experience of disagreeing with a good friend who you agree with about many things, but you disagree.”

“What is happening in the film and the reasons for which it’s happening, it’s in the nature of stories,” he continues. “It’s in the nature of communication… I try to tell the story as truthfully as I can to my own criteria. I also try deliberately to leave space for the audience, but I’m not trying to cut them out of the process because they cannot be cut out of the process. I could attempt to ask every question clearly and answer it all clearly, and you will still get different interpretations. So, I choose to lean into that because I find it interesting.” 

To hear full audio of our roundtable with Alex Garland, click here.

Civil War is available in theatres now.

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