Civil War: One Nation, Torn in Two

Pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. 

But which America? That’s the key question in Alex Garland’s Civil War, a film that may be set in the near future but feels all too real in the present. 

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. 

Brutal and brilliant, Civil War is an incredible film that places the notion of war on trial as opposed to any specific ideological differences. By following his team of reporters, Garland fills each moment of his dystopian vision of America with terror. While violence lurks around every corner, it’s the tension between factions that feels most palpable. (For example, this sort of anxiety is most apparent in a scene where the crew stop for fuel in a remote gas station as every pause feels pregnant with potential disaster.)

After all, this is a nation that’s torn between two warring factions. And everyone is being asked to pick a side. 

But what’s interesting about Garland’s world is that the viewer never fully understands what political issues have caused the battle. With factions split between Texas-California and the Florida Alliance, there is no mention of such hotbed topics as abortion rights, LGBTQ, racial tension or any other particular rallying cry. In doing so, we are never given the opportunity to stand with or against either side. Instead, Garland focuses his story on the divisiveness of war itself. We know nothing about their beliefs, but we know that this nation is tearing itself apart. In one particularly telling moment, Garland highlights a flag with only two stars. Suddenly, the states themselves are no longer relevant.

All that matters is which side you are on.

In this way, it’s fascinating that Garland chooses his heroes to be journalists. To them, the goal is to bring the truth to the people. Standing bravely in the line of fire, this team isn’t taking any political stance. Instead, they believe believes that they can show what’s really happening… and the ways that it’s tearing them apart. Opinions seem to have split the nation, and all they are left with are the images that they take. Whether they are bloody soldiers or dismembered members of the WC, people are willing to fight for the cause.

And, while vague, there’s no doubt that they’re fighting for ‘America’.

Each one of those involved in the battle has their own idea what the nation should be and they are willing to die for it. There’s a sense of preserving the way things ‘should be’, even if the film works hard to make sure that most of the specifics are left in the dark. For Garland, what makes America is not as important as the people who make America itself. Through the all-seeing cameras of these reporters show a nation that’s ripping itself to shreds, with few answers as to fix the damage.

Admittedly, the vague political nature of a film like this may irk some viewers, but not this critic. Instead, I believe it to be a profound inquest into the things that divide us and, more importantly, whether or not they’re worth the chaos in the end. Like many wars, this is one that simply makes no sense to those on the outside. 

And it is certainly one where everybody loses.

To hear our special roundtable discussion with Alex Garland, click here.

Civil War is available in theatres on Friday, April 12th, 2024.

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