Michelle Goldberg
The New York Times

‘Civil War’ and Its Terrifying Premonition of American Collapse 

Going into Alex Garland’s astonishing new film, “Civil War,” I expected to be irritated by the implausibility of its premise. I’m not talking about the idea that America could devolve into vicious internecine armed conflict. That seems possible, if not probable.

In one 2022 poll, 43 percent of Americans said they thought a civil war within the next decade was at least somewhat likely. I wouldn’t go that far, but I won’t be surprised if political violence spikes after the upcoming election and eventually spirals out of control. I’m pretty confident, however, that if the sort of war Garland depicts ever actually broke out in this beleaguered nation, California and Texas wouldn’t be on the same side.

“Civil War” has received plenty of adulatory reviews, but Garland has also been widely criticized for eliding the ideological forces driving America’s fracturing. He’s repeatedly spoken about the dangers of polarization, a bit of a cop-out, given that only one American political party has leaders who lionize violent insurrection.

This month A24, the powerhouse indie production company behind “Civil War,” released a map of the film’s fictional divisions on social media, under the hokey caption “Pledge your allegiance.” It showed an America split among the Loyalist States, stretching from the East Coast through the center of the country; the southern Florida Alliance; the secessionist Western Forces of California and Texas; and the New People’s Army of the northwest, which sounds vaguely Maoist.

This suggested a fictional universe in which far-right militias and antifa groups pose comparable threats, an impression strengthened by some of Garland’s comments at South by Southwest, the Austin, Texas, cultural festival where “Civil War” debuted. “I have a political position, and I have good friends on the other side of that political divide,” he said. “Honestly, I’m not trying to be cute. What’s so hard about that?”

The obvious answer is that friendly disagreement between left and right is possible on some issues but not others; there’s no fruitful debate to be had about, for example, whether migrants are “poisoning the blood” of our country. Garland’s No Labels-style denunciation of extremism in general — as opposed to the particular kind of extremism behind America’s most deadly recent political violence — seemed to me a little glib and cynical, as if he wanted to make a hugely provocative movie but not risk offending potential audiences. If you’re going to dramatize many of our worst fears about the trajectory of American politics, I thought you should take the substance of those politics seriously.

But now that I’ve seen “Civil War,” which is neither glib nor cynical, Garland’s decision to keep the film’s politics a little ambiguous seems like a source of its power. The emphasis here should be on “a little” because, contrary to some of what I’d read, its values aren’t inscrutable, just lightly worn. Yes, there is a reference, early on, to “Portland Maoists.” We learn that the film’s heroine, a valiant, traumatized combat photographer named Lee, is famous for shooting the “antifa massacre,” but we never find out if antifa members were the perpetrators or victims. Still, it’s not a stretch to interpret the film as a premonition of how a seething, entropic country could collapse under the weight of Donald Trump’s return.

As “Civil War” opens, America’s third-term president — a man who will later be compared to Benito Mussolini, Nicolae Ceausescu and Moammar al-Gaddafi — is practicing a blustering speech. “We are now closer than we have ever been to victory,” he says, falsely, adding, “Some are already calling it the greatest victory in the history of mankind.” Nick Offerman, who plays the president, doesn’t imitate Trump’s mannerisms, but the phrasing — the absurd, mendacious hyperbole attributed to nameless third parties — is extremely familiar. Soon after this scene, a journalist imagines asking him if, in retrospect, disbanding the FBI was a mistake.

The action in “Civil War” is driven by Lee and her colleagues’ quest to make it from New York to Washington, DC, to capture the president’s overthrow by rapidly advancing rebel forces. (The front line, in a resonant note, is in Charlottesville, Va.) In the film’s most gutting scene, a paramilitary soldier filling a mass grave asks each of the journalists where they’re from. Lee is from Colorado, and a younger reporter whom she’s reluctantly taken on as a protégée is from Missouri. To the soldier, these women, who are, like him, both white, are the right kind of American. Others in their party don’t qualify.

Given this setup, the ideological indeterminacy of the rebels helps the movie avoid seeming schematic or didactic. “Civil War” is an antiwar war movie; you’re not supposed to root for anyone except the journalists witnessing it. Part of what makes it so searing, though, is that aside from its unlikely California-Texas alliance, its story doesn’t require too much explanation to make sense.

Garland has said that the dynamics depicted in “Civil War” aren’t specific to America, but had he attempted a similar movie about his native England, a lot more narrative scaffolding would have been required to show how citizens turned fratricidal, not to mention where all the heavy weapons came from. In America, you need less signposting on the route from our uneasy present to an imagined implosion. The movie’s refugee camps don’t look all that different from the tent encampments in many American cities. The paramilitary guy, in his fatigues and goofy red sunglasses, could easily be a Boogaloo Boi or an Oath Keeper. The culminating battle in the capital is a more intense version of scenes we witnessed on Jan. 6, 2021.

Early in the movie Lee says, “Every time I survived a war zone and got the photo, I thought I was sending a warning home: Don’t do this.” “Civil War” works as a similar sort of warning. It’s close enough to where America is right now that we don’t need Garland to fill in all the blanks.