Political Prisoners | The Source Weekly - Bend, Oregon

Political Prisoners

Alex Garland's newest provocation imagines a modern civil war

My grandma turned 99 this year, and whenever she talks about the future she laughs and says she wants to live long enough to see the next election because she's excited for a civil war. I think there's a dark anarchy to my grandma that scares the shit out of me, but I also can't fault someone nearing 100 who wants to watch the whole thing burn while they dance a jig on the ashes.

click to enlarge Political Prisoners
Photo courtesy of A24
Kristen Dunst searches for the perfect image in “Civil War.”

Alex Garland, as a novelist, screenwriter and filmmaker, has always been somewhat of a provocateur, showing us glimpses into other worlds that either attempt to reshape the context for how we view contemporary society or shock us into re-evaluating the lives we lead and the imprints on Earth and humankind that we will leave behind. Garland wrote "28 Days Later" and "Never Let Me Go," while writing and directing "Ex Machina," "Annihilation," "Men" and the sure-to-be-divisive "Civil War." One thing all of these movies, aside from "28 Days Later," have in common, aside from him? They don't make much money at the box office while usually being critically acclaimed.

Garland has big ideas that make most people uncomfortable. "Ex Machina" looks at A.I. through a humanist lens that abandons empathy for a nihilistic approach to survival. "Annihilation" is a cosmic mystery in love and equally terrified of a future where a nature so alien as to be unknowable begins to reclaim Earth one square foot at a time. "Men" takes the toxic masculine incel and plops the deconstructed archetype down in the middle of a British folk horror gut churner.

With "Civil War," Garland has made his biggest provocation yet: a thriller set during an American Civil War (mostly around Virginia, Washington, D.C., and the East Coast) that cares much less about politics and the intricacies of a war and instead focuses almost exclusively on what that would look like for human beings. The actual human cost of war. Texas and California are on the same team. Yep, that's super weird and probably wouldn't shake out like that in reality, but Garland uses that incongruity to say, "What if maybe the only thing that's actually important is life?"

"Civil War" is mostly focused on a van of journalists played by Kristen Dunst, Wagner Moura, Cailee Spaeny and Stephen McKinley Henderson as they travel from NYC to D.C. in hopes to photograph and interview the soon-to-be-deposed president. Other than hearing the president is on his third term, we never really find out why the war is being fought. Instead, Garland designs "Civil War" to be an upsetting view of a divided America where the diplomatic solutions are gone and now violence is what remains.

In the America of 2024, we're almost a decade into a cultural battle that has long since disposed of the oxymoronic "civility" of the war and instead celebrates the loudest voices and the hottest takes instead of reason and empathy. "Woke" is a pejorative, "Patriot" is a dog-whistle and, for a wide swath of America, a "fact" is something that their echo chamber all agrees is the truth. Science, rationality and kindness by consensus. I call it the "Carlson Effect" or "The Alex Jones Reality Fallacy."

"Civil War" doesn't care what your politics are. It wants people not to die over ideologies. It wants us to remember that the power of journalism is to help the people of the future remember the texture of reality and that human interaction doesn't always need to be antagonistic or transactional. The alpha male does not inherit the Earth. Does Garland take a political stance in the film? I would say the single scene featuring a blood-chilling Jesse Plemons as an ultra-nationalist xenophobe shows where his sympathy lies and (Extra! Extra!) it's not with white militiamen asking you where you're from.

I hope my grandma is disappointed and that there isn't a civil war after the next election, but I won't be surprised if there is. I hope she turns 100 in peace and gets to enter her Centennial Era with a newfound respect for the rationality of humanity and the knowledge that maybe the world is in smarter and safer hands than she expected. Gross, my optimism is showing, but life is pretty OK sometimes. People have the capacity to surprise you with rare bursts of beauty.

Every second of the film had me pinned to my chair in horror as Garland conjures what, at least to me, feels like the most realistic vision of a modern American civil war I could possibly imagine. Running gunfights down the halls of the White House and urban warfare with soldiers wearing Hawaiian shirts only looks like science fiction, until it doesn't. Until 9/11 or 1/6 reminds me that all warfare is urban to someone. That all violence is eventually personal. That no war is civil.

Civil War
Dir. Alex Garland
Grade: A
Now Playing at Regal Old Mill, Sisters Movie House, Odem Theater Pub

Jared Rasic

Film critic and author of food, arts and culture stories for the Source Weekly since 2010.
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