Civil War | How political is Alex Garland’s film?

Kirsten Dunst Civil War
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Is Alex Garland’s new film “apolitical”, or does it just take politics seriously? We take a look at the debate surrounding Civil War.

“Some are already calling it the greatest victory in the history of military campaigns”.

According to the actor that plays him, the unnamed President who opens Alex Garland’s Civil War with a TV address isn’t based on anyone in particular.

“Honestly, [the Trump comparison] didn’t even come up”, Nick Offerman somewhat implausibly told the Hollywood Reporter on a red carpet this month.

“It would be so easy to make this movie and lay in some easter eggs… but you would lose half your audience one way or another”.

Throughout Civil War’s press tour, Garland and the cast have been keen to stress the film’s bipartisan credentials. This, as you might imagine, hasn’t been easy. With a President seeking an unconstitutional third term, disbanding the FBI and shooting journalists on sight, the comparisons with a recent resident of the White House are impossible to avoid. He even wears a red tie.

Still, that the extent of Civil War’s politicality is even a question is a feat in itself. The Guardian called it “evasively apolitical”; the Financial Times said it was scarily glib”; Polygon claimed it says “more about people than about politics”.

This particular criticism seems to really grind Garland’s gears. “Of course it’s a political film”, he told a rapt AMC Lincoln Square audience earlier this month. “I’m starting to get irritated by the question.”

But it is true that, for the most part, Civil War goes out of its way to avoid direct parallels with modern party politics. The Western Forces advancing on Washington DC pairs up blue-state California with red-state Texas. Of all the characters the band of intrepid journalists crossing the country meet, few seem willing to commit to either side. Even Jessie Plemons’ ask-questions-then-shoot-immediately psycho might just be some guy who likes red sunglasses.

This doesn’t stop Civil War from being one of the most overtly political blockbusters in decades. Taking inspiration from Apocalypse Now, Elem Klimov’s 1985 anti-war film Come and See and US portrayals of conflict in the middle east, the movie treats modern day America as hundreds of American filmmakers have treated countries on the other side of the world. “All the films I’ve seen with the American troops in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq…none of them explain the background of anything”, star Wagner Moura told Fox 32.

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

Read more: Civil War review | Alex Garland makes his own Heart Of Darkness

Civil War does the same, the only difference being that this war hasn’t happened yet. Still, it’s difficult to come out of Civil War without appreciating it’s a fan of neither war nor fascism. This, as decades of writing on the original Star Wars would suggest, is a political stance.

It’s a film which encourages audiences to bring their own baggage to it. For my part, I thought Offerman’s opening monologue was about as blatant a reference to Trump as the film got. Others, noting that this President displays the un-Trumpian characteristic of speaking in coherent sentences, have labelled him a fabrication.

But the fact the film has triggered this sort of debate really only serves to underline its un-partisan (though absolutely not apolitical) message further. By separating both sides of the war from policy, ideology and agenda, it serves as a propulsive cautionary tale against division, and a warning shot for anyone convinced all-out-war “could never happen here”. Where other films avoid hard questions by referencing each other more than the world outside the cinema doors, Civil War dares to tackle the current political landscape head on. In an age where politics is increasingly seen as a dividing line rather than a unifying one, more than anything it serves as a reminder of what politics is for. The point of a democracy is not to pick a side.

In that way, Civil War’s most powerful political statements are found in what it doesn’t say, rather than what it does. “I don’t need to tell anybody why this civil war occurred,” Garland told the audience in Lincoln Square. “I think, in conversation over a beer, everybody would know why.”

Civil War is in UK cinemas now.

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