The enemy within: a still from Alex Garland’s “Civil War”. Image: TCD/Prod.DB / Alamy

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In Alex Garland’s ‘Civil War’—as in so many other recent films—the greatest threat comes from within
May 1, 2024

So this is how it ends. Skyscrapers turned into smokestacks. Towns reduced to rubble. Air strikes against citizens. Suicide bombers wearing their national flag infiltrating crowds fighting over water. Military checkpoints, mass graves and makeshift refugee camps in disused football stadiums. “Every time I survived a war zone, I thought I was sending a warning home: don’t do this,” says Lee (Kirsten Dunst), a photojournalist accustomed to reporting such horrors from overseas. “But here we are.” This is not Ukraine. This is not Mogadishu. To quote Childish Gambino: this is America.

To be exact, this is the America of Alex Garland’s new film, Civil War, which has been generating Drudge-featured headlines (“A24’s ‘Civil War’ Trailer Stokes Fear of Insurrection Ahead of 2024”) since its trailer became a right-wing talking point late last year. The film’s premiere, on the other hand, drew attacks from the left for its refusal to pick a side in the battle it depicts between the “Western Forces” of Texas and California, which have both seceded from the union, and the government forces dug in around an autocratic three-term president (Nick Offerman) in Washington DC. 

The film instead falls in with a quartet of shellshocked journalists—Dunst, Wagner Moura, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Cailee Spaeny—as they make their way in a battered white press van across a depopulated eastern seaboard. They drive down interstate highways littered with burned-out cars, with corpses strung up from the overpass, past the eerily beautiful sight of Charlottesville lit up at night with tracer fire, before reaching DC, where a bazooka shot takes down the Lincoln Memorial, with its hopeful inscription that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”. Well, it was a sweet thought.

We’ve seen similar iconography before, in the cycle of big-budget disaster movies in which aliens or meteors laid waste to American landmarks in the 1990s and early 2000s: Armageddon, Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, Deep Impact, Volcano, Cloverfield, 2012. But what distinguishes Civil War, and pushes it into such company as Craig Zobel’s The Hunt (2020), Cary Murnion and Jonathan Milott’s Bushwick (2017), Trey Edward Shults’s It Comes at Night (2017), David M Rosenthal’s How It Ends (2018) and Sam Esmail’s Leave the World Behind (2023), is the extent to which internal enemies have replaced external ones as the main existential threat to America.

“Is it 9/11 again? Is it terrorists?” asks Lucy (Brittany Snow), the young Brooklynite on her way to visit her grandmother in Bushwick, emerging from the subway to find an ice-cream truck in flames and the area overrun by snipers representing secessionist forces from the South. “He had his money on Iran, maybe Putin,” thinks the hero of Rumaan Alam’s 2020 novel, Leave the World Behind, in which a spectacular and mysterious series of blackouts bring the country’s infrastructure to a halt. Is it indeed Iran? The Chinese? Maybe the Koreans? In Alam’s book, the exact mechanism of the attack is left purposefully vague—like Don DeLillo’s The Silence, it’s a novel that recreates for the reader the very technological miasma that is its subject. But in Sam Esmail’s Netflix adaptation, starring Julia Roberts and Ethan Hawke, Mahershala Ali’s investment banker brings news from the dark corridors of the military-industrial complex of a three-stage manoeuvre designed to topple any government: first a comms blackout, then chaos, which triggers the third stage—“coup d’état, civil war, collapse”. In other words, the call is coming from inside the house.

These films are not gung-ho special effects blockbusters but elliptical, politically savvy thrillers

Sharing less with the apocalypse movies of the 1990s than the conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s, such as The Conversation and The Parallax View, these films are not gung-ho special effects blockbusters but elliptical, politically savvy thrillers, often set just several years into the future, after the events that precipitated the crisis, the nature of which is often left vague or merely symbolic, the better to stoke suspicions and allow internal divisions to splinter and crack. In It Comes At Night, mis-marketed by the production company of the moment, A24, as a horror film, two families are thrown into uneasy alliance against an enemy apparently picking them off in the woods, only to find that they can achieve mutually assured destruction on their own: a round of paranoid blood-letting is triggered by nothing more than a bad dream. Shults’s film invites audiences to fret not about the forces raging outside, but the people they willingly shut themselves in with.

For a nation whose cinema has been marinaded in the vilification of external geopolitical foes—Nazis, commies, terrorists—the moment is a profoundly disorienting one and reaches its unsettling apex in Garland’s Civil War. Greenlit in the wake of the violence of 6th January 2020, the film has been criticised for its studied non-partisanship—that unlikely-seeming alliance of California and Texas has the feel of an election-year fudge. But “as soon as DC falls, they will turn on each other,” explains Sam (Stephen McKinley Henderson), the veteran reporter for “what’s left of the New York Times”. Later, the journalists stumble across an outdoor Winter Wonderland attraction where they find soldiers pinned down in a field of bluebells by a sniper while “Jingle Bells” sounds tinnily on the tannoy. Which side are the soldiers on? They shrug. Who gave them their orders? “Nobody gave us orders,” responds one, sarcastically. “Someone is trying to kill us. We are trying to kill them.” Survival is politics enough.

The audience’s difficulty in telling the two sides apart is not a bug but a feature, part and parcel of the minimalism of Garland’s script, which is deliberately coy with the events that led to the war whose final days we are witnessing. In passing, we hear that the president has disbanded the FBI and authorised air strikes against civilians. There is talk of an “antifa massacre” in the not-too-distant past. Garland doesn’t explain what led the states of Texas and California to secede from the union. He doesn’t need to. We’ve been doomscrolling the film’s backstory for years. The only exposition the film needs appears every day in the pages of the Nation, the New York Times and New Yorker, where headlines ask “Is America Headed for Another Civil War?” “Is a Civil War Ahead?” and “How Does This End?” A poll conducted by the Economist in 2022 found that 40 per cent of Americans believe a new civil war is “at least somewhat likely in the next 10 years.”

Hauntingly familiar: some of the most powerful moments 
in Garland’s film are owed to its desolate backdrop © Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Hauntingly familiar: some of the most powerful moments in Garland’s film are owed to its desolate backdrop © Everett Collection Inc / Alamy

“We are a factionalized anocracy that is quickly approaching the open insurgency stage, which means we are closer to civil war than any of us would like to believe,” writes political scientist Barbara F Walter in her 2022 book How Civil Wars Start, which identifies three factors that predict a descent into civil conflict—“factionalism”, “democratic decay” and “status reversal” for a once dominant group—before concluding that the US is firmly in the “danger zone”. Walter is one of the more level heads among the End-of-America Cassandras, collapsitarians, declinists and doomers. In his 2022 book, The Next Civil War: Dispatches from the American Future, Canadian journalist Stephen Marche envisages a dirty bomb attack on the Capitol, a web-radicalised loner gunning down the president in Jamba Juice, and other such Hollywoodish pitches seemingly bound for the desk of Roland Emmerich. Reviewing the book for the Atlantic, Irish writer Fintan O’Toole recalled his own father’s conviction that the Ireland of the 1990s was headed for a civil war, which never quite materialised during the Troubles, though the idea it was inevitable acted as both propaganda point and recruiting tool for both sides.

If prophets are to be held to the same standard as pollsters—and it’s not clear that they should be—the biggest mistake of a film like Civil War might be imagining the next civil war as resembling the last one, in which 11 states took up arms against 20 in the union and waged a four-year war costing 720,000 lives. When, or if, violence breaks out in present-day America, it is unlikely to do so between two symmetrically opposed forces. To put it bluntly, only one side in America’s current partisan divide is heavily armed; liberals are not known for their private militias. “Who invades Bushwick?” asks the heroine of Murnion and Milott’s film, after secessionist forces occupy a neighbourhood of Brooklyn known for its coffee. The more sober experts in the field predict a conflict much more like the Troubles or the guerrilla war in Colombia—a period of large-scale street demonstrations, normalised political violence, lone-wolf attacks and partisan street-fighting whose most likely flashpoint is a contested presidential election. Or, as we like to call it in America: last week’s newsfeed.

The biggest mistake of a film like ‘Civil War’ might be imagining the next civil war as resembling the last one

Sometime around 2018, a new term began to find purchase among America’s pundit class, that of a “cold” civil war—in which states seek to undo elections they don’t like and nullify federal laws on hot-button issues such as immigration or abortion—a kind of Secession Lite very similar to activity we have been witnessing. If the second civil war is indeed cold, it has already started. It is a strange fact of American political life that at any given point, just under 40 per cent of the nation’s voters feel themselves to be living under insufferable tyranny. Democrats may feel the threat posed by Trump to be real and that Republicans’ fears are merely phantasms ginned up by Fox News and Newsmax, but that doesn’t alter the emotional facts of life, which are that the two halves of the electorate take turns to be governed by a group they regard as an enemy to their deepest held values and beliefs. To both sides, it can feel more like living under occupation.

Maybe that’s why the most powerful parts of Garland’s film are not its passages of combat but its quieter interludes, as the country rolls past the journalists’ windscreen—suburban cul-de-sacs and lawn sprinklers, department stores and gas stations, bathed in dusty yellow sunlight and soundtracked by the chirps of crickets and birds. It is not what is most changed but all that is most ordinary that is shocking about the imagery: a car dealership roamed by packs of wild dogs; a gas station in whose carwash two looters have been strung up and tortured; a helicopter crashed in the car park of a department store; and, most ominously, a farmhouse fronted with poinsettias, to the back of which a truck heaves bodies into a mass grave. Scattering lime onto the bodies is a Western Forces soldier in camo and red-tinted sunglasses (Jesse Plemons) who, upon being told by the journalists that they are Americans, asks them, at gunpoint, “What kind of American are you?”

It’s this line, featured in the trailer, that has struck a bell-like resonance that filmmakers dream of. Civil War has been called an “election-year provocation” but it’s a more cool-headed movie than that. “Lee doesn’t understand ‘shook-up’,” Moura says of Dunst’s photojournalist, setting up a debate about the morality of extracting beautiful images from the suffering of mortal combat. It’s not ruin porn so much as a film about the moral efficacy of ruin porn. Dunst’s photos, which are dropped into the action, recall the work of daguerreotype portraitist George N Barnard. He published a book of albumen silver prints taken while travelling with Sherman’s army, showing the general’s march from Tennessee to the sea, through the sacked cities of Columbia and Charleston, past trees split by cannon fire and the Doric arcades of a railway station burnt by the rebels as they retreated. In that sense, Garland gives America a happy ending—the very violence of the film compels its own climax and release. The best thing that can be said about wars is that they end.