‘Civil War’ Loses Itself in Some Very Strange Premises

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Last weekend my wife and I saw the new movie, Civil War. Neither of us knew much about it, but we felt like going to the theater that night, and the film was getting a lot of buzz, so we checked it out.

While I’m happy to report that it’s well made and well acted, I also found it awfully weird. Not weird in the sense that it’s overly artsy or eccentric, or anything of that nature. It was weird because the script seemed intent on illustrating the modern polarization that exists in our country by evoking various real-life factions, tensions, and events… and then tossing them around in a bingo-ball machine, and re-ordering them to present a national conflict that made very little sense.

I read afterwards that British writer-director Alex Garland is taking some criticism for what would seem to be a poorly-informed understanding of American culture (and even U.S. geography), and I think the critics are probably right.

I mean, the premise of the film is that Texas and California have seceded from the United States into an alliance (they even have their own American flag with two stars instead of fifty) to overthrow the federal government. In real life, it’s not exactly a secret that these two states are political and cultural rivals. Heck, I’m not sure Garland could have come up with a less plausible partnership, but if he did know what he was doing here (and I suspect he didn’t), he should have at least put forth some kind of explanation… even in the abstract. Instead, unless I missed something, it’s just left up to the audience’s imagination.

Antifa is mentioned a couple of times, along with some elements of nationalism and racial unrest (so it’s not like the story exists in an alternate universe). Late in the film, there’s a line about the FBI being dismantled and the president serving a third term. I guess we’re to assume those things played a part in creating a very bloody two-state military insurrection, but also weird is the fact that other states are content with sitting out the conflict (indifferent to the outcome), while some localities fall under anarchy and mob rule.

It’s also kind of murky as to which side in the war has the moral high-ground. It’s suggested, at times, to be the insurgency. There’s at least some degree of federal corruption, after all, including the White House’s refusal to talk to the media.

Yet, while the Texas-California coalition is very friendly toward (and protective of) the press, their soldiers casually execute bound prisoners and surrendering non-combatants (in front of the cameras no less). In some cases, such acts even feel romanticized by Garland, which I found personally disturbing in the context of the political anger and violence we’ve seen throughout our country in recent years.

It’s possible this was Garland’s attempt to hold a mirror up to Americans, and reveal to them their lack of thought (as is perceived overseas), but it came across to me like righteous indignation… which one would hope won’t end up validating dangerous ideas floating around in some viewers’ heads. Yes, the film is a work of fiction, but the subject matter is topical enough to warrant at least a passing bit of concern.

The film’s saving grace, and really the backbone of the story, is the camaraderie between four journalists traveling together to Washington DC, in hopes of somehow interviewing the president (while he’s still in power). For the most part, those relationships are well-constructed, the characters are interesting, and like I said, the acting is quite good (Kirsten Dunst was great, and a cameo by her real-life husband Jesse Plemons was a scene-stealer). The war scenes are intense and well-constructed as well.

But due to the muddled backdrop and strange depiction of American tribalism, I think a large chunk of the U.S. audience — while recognizing some American themes and angst — will view this flick, despite its cast and location, as almost a foreign film.

And with a story so uniquely American, that’s not a good thing.


Have you seen Civil War? What are your thoughts on the film? Let me know in an email or in the comment section below.

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