Written by Tom Augustine.

There’s a great gag toward the end of Mad Men, when perpetual asshole Harry runs into an old workmate, Kinsey, who is trying to make it in the world of TV writing. He’s not very good at it, and he’s written a spec script for Star Trek, called (ahem) ‘The Negron Complex’, about a planet where a persecuted race of white aliens are ruled over by an oppressive race of black aliens. I assume you can track the metaphor from there. Part of the joke is that every wannabe screenwriter has had some variation of the aggressively prescriptive speculative ‘what if’ idea that ‘The Negron Complex’ so expertly lampoons. What if it were white people who were enslaved? What if the Allies lost World War II? What if the phones of the future controlled us, rather than the other way around? Most screenwriters ultimately identify the juvenilia of such set-ups, leaving them behind. After all, they’re questions of a kind of social complexity that require a genuine master to pull off – your Alan Moores or Philip K Dicks – and require an absolute clarity of purpose. What is it that is specifically intriguing or triggering about this concept? Don’t look to Black Mirror, they usually don’t know. The alternative is, well, Kinsey.


The reason I bring this up is because it’s the kind of area that filmmaker and screenwriter Alex Garland has made his bread-and-butter, and one that his latest film, Civil War, fits into quite comfortably. The setup is relatively straightforward – what if the United States follows the path laid out by its current trends of division, and splinters into warring factions, kicking off a conflict that has only one prior precedent, the American Civil War? It’s the kind of idea that kicks around the heads of speculative writers regularly (recall a recent much-maligned project of an adjacent nature, Confederate, from the Game of Thrones team, that was to speculate about a world in which the Confederates won). The large majority of Garland’s previous films deal in the realm of speculative science fiction, to the point where it’s reasonable to see Civil War as the film he’s been building toward since his game-changing script for Danny Boyle’s horror 28 Days Later. From his screenplays for Sunshine, Never Let Me Go and Dredd to films like Annihilation and Ex Machina, Garland has taken it upon himself to be a prophesier of the end results of modern-day anxieties like artificial intelligence, climate change, policing, cloning and so on. To my mind, this has led to very mixed results – for every solid piece of sci-fi like Ex Machina or Dredd, there’s work that simply doesn’t click, like the way overpraised Annihilation or Garland’s most recent film Men, which most can agree was the icky, howlingly obvious nadir of his oeuvre. Never one for subtlety, it was a film so egregiously out-of-depth that it cast a pall on much of Garland’s earlier work. 


The problem at the heart of Civil War lies in the very concept of the film. It’s a concept, in a Trumpian world, that comes pre-packaged with certain ideas, symbols and messages, ones that Garland seems eager to avoid examining directly. “Left and right are ideological arguments about how to run a state. That’s all. They’re not right or wrong, but we’ve made it into ‘good and bad,’ a moral issue, and that’s fucking idiotic”, said Garland in an interview ahead of Civil War’s release. The blinkered, above-it-all centrism of that take extends into the ideas at play in the film, a middle of the road ideology that reflects the film’s thematic shallowness. Playing both sides about the current state of American politics, equating the escalation of activism on either side under the blanket of ‘we’re not so different, you and I’, certainly doesn’t feel like the film we need right now, though Garland certainly seems to think so. 

Tense, ambitious and muddled, Alex Garland’s latest (and possibly final) feature showcases both the best and the worst of the British screenwriter-turned-filmmaker. It’s a film that bristles with surface pleasures, but remains frustratingly hollow below the surface.

Garland is canny about his apoliticism though, locating a central narrative throughline that centrist ideology can rally behind: the importance of journalism. In Civil War, four journalists – weathered and traumatised photographer Lee (Kirsten Dunst), her reporter companion Joel (Wagner Moura), disabled veteran correspondent Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and eager young novice Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) embark on a roadtrip across a war-torn United States, aiming to embed themselves in the advancing ‘Western Forces’ (an allied Texas and California) as they march toward Washington DC, where the President (Nick Offerman) of the ‘Loyalist States’ has holed up with the last of his defenses. Praise must be reserved for the efforts of this central quartet, who carry Civil War on their shoulders. Dunst is reliably stoic and controlled, while McKinley-Henderson projects a wisdom that mingles enjoyably with aged saltiness. Best is Spaeny, following on from their breakout work in Priscilla with another enthralling, excellent performance. The young actress’ star is rapidly on the rise, and her work here – fragile but cunning, green but resourceful, callous in telling moments – showcases an actress hungry for the good stuff. The journalists’ goal – a last ditch interview with the President before his almost-certain overthrow. Who are the Western Forces and what are their politics? What about the President, who we’ve learned has stayed on for a third term and fired missiles at American citizens? That we’re left to unravel ourselves, and much of Civil War is ironically at war with itself about how much of the game to give away. To Garland, these elements don’t really matter so much as the fact that everyone is fighting, an overt attempt to stave off inquisition into his own viewpoints, keeping the conflict muddy enough that one ideally sails through the film without questioning it. And to a degree, during the watching of Civil War, Garland is successful in this ploy.


Experientially, Civil War is strong suspense filmmaking. Coming in well under two hours, the film is fleet and muscular, eschewing detail in favour of propulsiveness. The episodic nature of the film aims to recall the greatest of all war films, Apocalypse Now, as the journalists venture into a heart of darkness where the President is Colonel Kurtz waiting at the end of the line (forgetting that Kurtz had a cult-leader-like magnetism and a general sense of definition that linked him strongly to the urgent ideological warfare of Vietnam, whereas Offerman’s President remains a cipher). Garland has always excelled at individual set-pieces, particularly ones that ratchet up the suspense several degrees, and Civil War allows the filmmaker ample opportunity to do so. The most famous of these is probably Annihilation’s horrifying ‘bear attack’ sequence, but now faces competition in Civil War’s finest scene, involving a rogue unnamed soldier (played by Dunst’s husband Jesse Plemons) who the journalists stumble upon in an incredibly compromising position. In this sequence we get a glimpse at what Civil War could have been. Plemons, terrifyingly calm and authoritative, wrangles the film into a chokehold for a few minutes, bedecked in pink sunglasses that suggest an offhand, gleeful menace. His character is as close to explicitly Trumpian as we get, which makes the sequence’s excellence all the more frustrating for being stranded in a film that exerts itself to deny specificity.   


This exemplifies Civil War as a real rosetta stone for Garland’s entire body of work, which has trended further and further into shallowness as his career has progressed. Despite Garland’s technical mastery, extracting tension from sequence to nerve-shredding sequence, the hollowness of Civil War sets in almost immediately as the credits roll. Perhaps because Men exposed Garland’s groan-worthy neoliberalism to an excessive degree, this film displays most exuberantly how the filmmaker has whittled hedge betting down to a fine art, and it’s fascinating and frustrating to watch this film bend over backwards to avoid saying anything of substance. The film presents itself, and functions best as an examination of journalism and ethics, as Lee grapples with the horrors of what she’s seen while doggedly chasing the next scoop, a kind of Hurt Locker for newsies. But it’s the focus on this profession that also exposes Civil War’s most glaring flaws. Garland clearly aims to champion the work of reporters who themselves strive to remain ‘objective’ in the search of the truth, despite the fact that objectivity has long since left the building in the world of American media. The profession’s (supposed) apolitical vantage point is a convenient totem for Garland to hide behind and avoid making any kind of judgement on the combatants beyond the most glaringly obvious. 


Of course, everything in Civil War is political, despite Garland’s attempts to quash that element – but those politics reveal themselves in his attempts to avoid taking any sort of stance beyond ‘war is bad’ and ‘both sides are kinda the same, amirite?’ One of the most significant blindspots here is Garland’s stubborn refusal to bring race into the conversation, despite race lying at the heart of the original American Civil War and, arguably, every conflict the country has seen since. It’s not the first time Garland’s colourblind approach has landed him in hot water. His casting of Paapa Essiedu as the abusive, suicidal husband in Men, the black spouse of a white protagonist, felt especially tone deaf and misguided. In Civil War, black, Asian and hispanic combatants are seemingly present on either side of the conflict, while many of the journalists that populate the film are also people of colour. Their politics generally remain unclear and, Jesse Plemons scene aside, the nature of their race is so subtly layered into the film as to be essentially nonexistent. In an American climate of threatened mass-deportations, police violence and raging inequality, Garland’s refusal to engage feels less noble than deeply unfortunate, a missed opportunity of massive proportions. 


In a sense, then, Civil War is quite a timely piece of work, though not for the reasons Garland seems to intend. We’re in an era in which few in the government, in the media, or in everyday life feel quite willing to genuinely address the problems that plague us, preferring instead to digress into culture war issues and petty diversions. There’s a scene midway through Civil War where the journalists drive through a forest ablaze, seemingly in the midst of a wildfire. It’s evocatively shot, with sparks drizzling the road in slow-motion. But Garland strands the scene in a vacuum, any in-depth interrogation of climate change left to the imagination, despite the fact that climate change has become a viable political crossroads in America and beyond. Civil War is a peculiar beast, a film that trades in loaded imagery of empires falling, Americans living in refugee tent cities reminiscent of recent news coverage from Palestine, of mass executions and civilian casualties, but which fundamentally doesn’t know what to do with them. It’s a film that mistakes a certain kind of subtlety for artfulness, in a time when the quiet part really needs to be loud. 

Civil War is in cinemas now.


Civil War

Movie title: Civil War (Garland, 2024)

Movie description: Tense, ambitious and muddled, Alex Garland’s latest (and possibly final) feature showcases both the best and the worst of the British screenwriter-turned-filmmaker. It’s a film that bristles with surface pleasures, but remains frustratingly hollow below the surface.

Date published: April 11, 2024

Country: United States

Author: Alex Garland

Director(s): Alex Garland

Actor(s): Kirsten Dunst, Nick Offerman, Cailee Spaeny,

Genre: Action

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