By Richard Donnelly
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Civil War fails to capture the divides in US society

Civil War provides a distorted and detached view of the real tensions in US society

Cailee Spaeny stars in Civil War

Director Alex Garland’s Civil War is a cinematic representation of a phantom haunting the United States. It explores the possibility of the far right triggering a civil war in the coming decades.

The rise of Donald Trump, and his armed supporters in the militia movement, has driven a wave of speculation and fear about the future in US culture. This is reflected in popular books such as The Next Civil War and How Civil Wars Start. The film is a sort of grim road trip movie, following a team of war reporters as they encounter bombed out cities, mass graves and battles.

It’s a spectacular action movie with an ensemble cast, including Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura and Cailee Spaeny. But the film has an Achilles’ heel—it refuses to give any explanation of why the second US Civil War broke out and the politics of the warring sides. Garland deliberately obscures the politics of the combatants, for example, by describing the “secessionist” states in the war as led by famously liberal California and famously right wing Texas.

Similarly, one scene has the war reporters suddenly pinned down by fire from a farm building. They find themselves taking refuge behind an opposing group of snipers, but they have no idea which side of the civil war either set of marksmen belong to. When one journalist asks a sniper who the men in the farm building are, instead of hearing about their political affiliations, he’s simply told, “They’re stuck. And we’re stuck too.”

The implication is that war is something like a natural disaster. It’s an unfortunate and absurd set of events that finds people on different sides, rather than the result of political conflicts and ideological struggles. The Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz famous called war “the continuation of politics by other means”. 

And this counts doubly for civil war, so the lack of any politics leaves a glaring hole in the film. Given you are rooting for neither side and don’t understand what they are fighting over, you are left asking, “So what?” The film’s vagueness reflects the logic of artistic production driven by profit.

The US is deeply ideologically divided, with increasingly insular and mutually hostile liberal and far right camps squaring up against each other at every level of politics and culture. Producing a movie that could be seen as coming down on one side or the other would have alienated half its potential audience, thus limiting its grossing potential at the box office.

The result is a film that is shy of controversy. It is devoid of basic plot exposition and provides only a distorted and detached view of the real tensions and fears in US society. So, is Civil War a civil bore? Well, even a film with an unsatisfying plot can have spectacle, beautiful sequences and valuable little philosophical moments. 

Civil War has a generous supply of all three. But the most interesting part of the film is perhaps the context in which it has been released. The film was largely produced before the Gaza war. But some of the scenes showing levelled cities, mass graves and field executions have now been turned into grim reality by Israel.

All this begs the question of how much US fears of a future “American nightmare” are really the return of repressed awareness of the country’s crimes around the world. That includes its instigation of a very real series of civil wars in Iraq that killed hundreds of thousands and its long support for the criminal policies of Israel.

  • Civil War is now in cinemas

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