Civil War and collapsing American society on film

Kirsten Dunst Civil War
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Alex Garland’s controversial Civil War boldly depicts an America in which democracy has fallen. Might this be a first in US cinema, AJ wonders…?

Something is different about Civil War, Alex Garland’s speculative drama about an American plunged into a Middle Eastern-style factional internal conflict. It’s inevitably, almost tediously, ended up mired in controversy – tedious to the extent that audiences ought to have had some idea what they’re signing up for in going to see this.

Or do they? Does Civil War mark a defined turning point for how America is represented in films about societal collapse and disaster? Anyone who saw the trailer for Garland’s film or any press beforehand would be aware of what his project is doing. Garland was never going to make a jingoistic Greatest Country in the World piece. His movie is about the open truth few Americans don’t want to admit right now – that their nation teeters on the edge of a democratic precipice.

Nevertheless, American – and more broadly Western audiences engaging in American entertainment – have been programmed to expect a vision of the United States as a nation on the defence, or the attack, rather than in self-destruction mode. 

Ever since the 1950s, in the wake of World War II, in which America crafted a national story about heroic success against the fascist forces of darkness, Hollywood cinema has worked to reinforce America as a nation in danger of corruption and destruction from outside forces. Many of the B-movie science fiction or horror films from that post-war era, a world grappling with the weight of the atom bomb, served as metaphors for the supposed threat of Communism, whether The Thing From Another World or Invasion Of The Body Snatchers.

This evolved during the 1970s into what we recognise as the ‘disaster movie’, which would often see American symbols of security under direct threat from sinister forces – The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, Airport, the list goes on. America became the focal point for placing ordinary people in extreme situations they would work together to conquer.

In the 1990s, a glut of nostalgic films looked back to the apocalyptic threats humanity faced in the 1950s, only with the benefit or higher budgets and the advent of CGI to pull them off. Be it vicious alien invaders, giant world-bothering asteroids, or even city destroying volcanoes (leaning back again to the disaster movie), America was always the focal point, with monuments pointedly destroyed in films such as Independence Day, Armageddon and so on. Still, they would find a way to triumph against the odds and save not just their country, but the world.

It’s impossible to divorce politics from these trends. Disaster struck in the 1970s as American society faced the post-Watergate, late-era Vietnam pull of fractured political discourse alongside a lagging economic framework. The buoyant post-war optimism of the boom years was fading. Moreover, across the 90s, a unipolar sense of America having ‘won’ the Cold War and triumphing over its enemies allowed Hollywood the confidence to tell stories about American destruction and eventual success.

That narrative naturally begins to change after 9/11. The 2000s contain far fewer examples of a united America fending off alien invaders or Russian terrorists with a growly “get off my plane”. The palette darkens, exemplified by films such as The Bourne Identity and its sequels, as storytellers began to question the solidity of American institutions and democratic processes. This had been there in the conspiracy movie of the 1970s, but that anxiety of American power beginning to wane after 9/11, that maybe Francis Fukuyama’s ‘The End of History’ didn’t quite happen as everyone thought, is very present.

Cailee Spaeny stars in Civil War, which has a new trailer
Credit: A24.

The rise of the superhero genre as the cultural behemoth in the 2010s strikes me as a reaction to this anxiety. America needed heroes. No longer can they be the man-mountain slabs of muscle we saw in the 1980s or 1990s, like Arnie or Sly; nor even the taciturn everymen such as Bruce Willis or Harrison Ford – normal guys against the odds in a Die Hard or The Fugitive. In the 2010s, America looked to the fanciful and the overblown for their heroism – men and women not just in tights but highly powered tech suits, driven by nascent AI, that helped them fend off supervillains and alien invasions as an often tiny group or one-person band.

All of this might seem disconnected to a film such as Civil War, but to me it explains partly why we might end up with a film such as Garland’s. The superhero craze is arguably over, or at least past the pre-COVID-19 fever pitch of the late Avengers movies. America since the pandemic has fractured to an even greater extent than ever before, the guardrails entirely off democratic norms as the nation races to one of the most tempestuous elections in history. There are many reasons why the superhero film fad might be over, but one I suspect is that audiences find it hard to believe anyone can save America currently – even Captain America.

In every one of these earlier cinematic trends, America either came out swinging or was saved from disaster. Will Smith punched the alien. Morgan Freeman rebuilt Capitol Hill after an asteroid strike. Chris Evans and company slayed the Titan and saved, in that case, the entire universe. People might have died but institutions survived. The system and fabric of the nation remained intact.

Civil War is the opposite. The fabric has been rent asunder. Even as Garland’s film begins, nothing is the same. The home of the brave is almost unrecognisable.

Credit: A24.

Of course,the trick Civil War pulls, discussed at length elsewhere, is to neutrally position the viewer with an assortment of photo journalists whose allegiances are relatively opaque. It’s through their eyes we see the crumbling nation state, torn apart in the vein of a Middle Eastern country America would historically try to police. Among numerous striking and, probably to conservative eyes, controversial scenes in Civil War is the rip-roaring climactic beat of the White House under siege from secessionist forces, working to bring down the President of the United States (played by a slippery Nick Offerman), who remains holed up inside his fortress.

This is a rather staggering scene to witness played out in a mainstream Hollywood film. The President portrayed as the decaying avatar of a failed state, a Ceausescu fascist hiding in his bunker until he is dragged out and shot, which is precisely what happens. I never thought I would see the day an American-produced, mainstream modern drama would align the leader of the free world in such a manner, depicting him analogous to global dictators. Whether you buy into Garland’s film and message or not, it’s incredible to watch.

Especially when you consider the depiction of presidents historically in cinema, certainly fictional ones. You might readily imagine the aforementioned Morgan Freeman’s dignity in Deep Impact, or Bill Pullman’s rousing speech in Independence Day, even Harrison Ford fighting terrorists in Air Force One. They’re varied and extreme depictions of the commander in chief, but all of them characterise the President as someone who fights to protect democracy and the status quo.

Moreover, consider how the White House is traditionally depicted in film. It has to be the most iconic political building in cinema history, especially the Oval Office, seen in a litany of films not just about the presidency but more broadly action movies or thrillers over the decades. It’s always a shining beacon of power and truth, even in films such as 1994’s Clear And Present Danger, which reveals the President to be embroiled in corruption. He isn’t pulled out and killed, rather confronted by Harrison Ford’s Jack Ryan, who in prose form will go on to be a fairly idealised presidential figure.

Credit: A24.

Equally, consider films such as White House Down or Olympus Has Fallen, both of which were released in classic magical Hollywood fashion almost simultaneously in 2013, but both of which depict the centre of American power under siege from foreign actors looking to destroy democracy. The TV series 24, in its seventh season, devoted several brilliant episodes to a White House siege in 2009.

In contrast, Civil War turns it into the hiding place of a tainted fascist, taken control of by militant Americans as a war zone Washington burns around it.

To me, this strikes me as a turning point in how American politics and democracy are portrayed in film. This is not to say that cinema has shied away from depicting a corrupt form of Presidential power over the decades – indeed, it’s the reverse in memorable films such as All The President’s Men. But there is a difference between suggesting America might be lying to itself over its virtue and actively showing the democratic project in tatters, attacking the very institutional symbols that it holds dear.

Even if Civil War fails to stand the test of time as a film, it might be the brave vanguard of a new wave of cinema which no longer suggests America is the heroic vision of truth and justice in the world.

In other words, the dream is over. The American Dream, that is. Civil War very much believes it is a nation through the looking glass. And while cinema may be less afraid now to depict that, we can only hope fiction doesn’t translate into reality.

You can find A J. on social media, including links to his podcasting and books, via here.

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