Spoiler Alert: Alex Garland’s “Civil War”

by Hills Snyder May 15, 2024

There is some ambiguity in Alex Garland’s Civil War, as much of the criticism has said, but less than has been suggested. The best pieces I read were by Richard Kreitner in Slate, a history of fiction in the years before and after the Civil War of the 1860s, and Manohla Dargis’ review of the film in the New York Times

There is nothing equivocal in a sequence in which bro-militia wannabes use the war as an excuse to exercise their prejudices and brutally kill people they don’t like. Sentiments such as these have been voiced in our time, even by members of Congress. One of these characters (Jesse Plemons) wears red shades, which render invisible the blood he is shedding and are indicative of the alternate reality in which he has chosen to live. He questions people he encounters, “Where you from? What kind of American?” A journalist who answers “Hong Kong” receives the retort “China” and a bullet in the chest.

Civil War seems to start an unspecified number of years in the future, but within sight of contemporary imagination. There are no futuristic details to encourage an audience response based in fantasy. A big hint of the timeframe is that the President is in his 22nd Amendment-defying third term. Within the context of the film, this is justification for the Western Federation’s secession and its war with the U.S. Government. That this isn’t presented as the spark of the war in on-screen text, voiceover, or through the mouth of a character, is a good thing — not the fence sitting implied in some reviews. 

The presidential character is easily read as an analogue to Trump, though no one associated with the film claims this to be so. The film begins with the President practicing exaggeration for a speech in which he will lie about an imaginary victory. He has dissolved the FBI and refers to the press as enemies. All echoes of the sorts of things Trump likes to say.

The President is performed by Nick Offerman, an actor best known for his characterization of the xenophobic Ron Swanson in the television series Parks and Recreation. Aspects of this character bleed into his portrayal of the President in Civil War.

Offerman played Swanson as a self-serious guy with a knack for skewed commentary such as “skim milk is water that is lying about being milk.” He brings off the Civil War President as phony in the opening sequence and in the end, when the soldiers of the Western Federation drag him from beneath his desk, he inadvertently supplies Reuters journalist Joel (Wagner Moura), with the reporter’s sought-for quote, “Don’t let them kill me” says the President.  “Yeah, that’ll do,” is Joel’s caustic reply. 

A handful of recordings are featured and are perfectly chosen and timed in their insertion into the film. None of them are current, the most recent being Breakers Roar by Sturgill Simpson from 2016. Lovefingers by Silver Apples, originally released in 1968, is the first song heard, and is especially effective as jarring juxtaposition. The same follows for De La Soul’s Say No Go, which serves as the soundtrack to the execution of three U.S. soldiers by unidentified paramilitary. None of the music is offered as time and place signifiers, or as explanatory sidebars — each song rides the story and integrates into the film for emotional timbre and pace.

There are several images that haunt: the red and white stripes of a gently wind-blown American flag superimposed with the red-tipped leaves of a white ash tree (fraxinus americana); the lead photographer (Kirsten Dunst), falling asleep while her group is pinned down by a sniper within the site of an abandoned Winter Wonderland Festival; a concrete overpass from which two people are hanged with “go Steelers” sprayed painted on it in times past, when tribalism had the sanctioned outlet of sport.

This photo, taken outside of the theater where I saw the film in Socorro, New Mexico, is the most ambiguous thing I experienced that day.

An American flag waves in the wind in a town square in New Mexico.

1 comment

1 comment

Joe Brandon May 17, 2024 - 11:56

Rotten Glass Tire-Matoes? Come on, man!


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