Kirsten Dunst in ‘Civil War’

Murray Close

Navigate to Arts & Letters section

This Isn’t Working

Alex Garland’s ‘Civil War’ is a good movie with very stupid politics

B. Duncan Moench
April 18, 2024
Kirsten Dunst in ‘Civil War’

Murray Close

Place your hand on the ground of American politics. Keep it there a moment. You’ll feel a deep rumble like A Minor Forest “math rock” song playing off in the distance. The sound of uncontrollable discontent hangs in the air. The country’s demise beckons. Like the clown from Stephen King’s It, our national breakup smiles dementedly from beneath the storm drain, urging us toward bad choices and worse outcomes. This is the message, more or less, of Alex Garland’s new film, Civil War.

Civil War is both beautiful and horrifying, containing some of the most realistic urban combat scenes yet put to film. Seen in IMAX, it is downright jarring. Through Garland’s vision, we’re able to get a Dunkirk-like glimpse of what the worst case scenario of the culture war might look like. Internal U.S. refugees camped out in tent cities, receiving aid in graffitied stadiums. Highways of death filled with bombed out cars and trucks. Attack helicopters used on U.S. citizens. A total absence of law and order that allows armed lunatics to massacre anyone they deem not the proper kind of “American.”

The film relies on a mostly unexplained premise that a future third-term U.S. president has dissolved the FBI, turning the United States into an authoritarian state. Garland doesn’t beat the audience over the head with his intentions or his politics. However, in his press tour for the film—including an advance NYC screening earlier this week I attended—he revealed that he felt no need to explain why the country broke apart. “Everyone knows,” he says. Indeed, we do.

Without making it explicit in the film, Garland clearly wishes to make an allusion not just to the orange man—and his all-too-familiar badness—but the much-lamented rise of “dangerous populism” across the West. Garland is subtle in how he takes sides, but he clearly aligns with the elitist interpretation of rising mass dissatisfaction as driven by the bad behavior of deplorables and their ignorant love of “disinformation.”

About 40 minutes into Civil War, there is a sequence of dialogue where Kirsten Dunst’s character, a famous war photographer coaching a young woman hoping to start out in the business, reveals the film’s primary message. The two are discussing whether they’re morally obligated to intervene in the violence they routinely see only a few feet in front of their cameras. Should they push people out of the way of bullets and missiles? What about helping medical staff when someone could be dying? In response, Dunst’s character delivers the film’s central message: “We don’t ask questions like that. We document what’s happening—so others can ask the questions.”

On a cinematic level, Garland’s second U.S. civil war—lived through the lens of a war photographer—is brilliantly filmed and imagined. However, on a political level, it’s pandering chickenshit. From beginning to end, Garland’s film is a love letter to journalists, or rather his very dated ideal of what journalists do. Over the last 35 years, American journalism has come a very long way from the Edward R. Murrow “we just document the world and don’t judge” approach. At present, establishment U.S. journalism amounts to one of two things—a happy-endings massage for wealthy elites or partisan propaganda (and often both).

Garland claims his artistic intention in Civil War is to send up a “warning flare” of what could happen and thus “stimulate discussion.” However, his version of the specifics of how an uber-violent U.S. national breakup might go down is exquisitely calibrated to titillate the fantasies of his Hollywood peers and reinforce their preexisting notions that the country should be kept together at all costs in order to protect the good NPR people from the mean deplorables. Who is to blame for the coming chaos? Middle Americans named Wyatt who pal around with bigoted lunatics and await the chance to commit genocide not just on any foreigner, but also their own neighbors. Politically speaking, what Garland has made is a wide-lens version of Deliverance.

Hollywood snobbery and bigoted anti-bigotry aside, the even larger problem with trying to persuade American viewers through a Hobbesian vision that their 50-state nation must be kept together under any circumstances is that the U.S. federal system is irreversibly broken. If one looks at the two largest areas of successful reform that have happened over the last 25 years in the U.S.—the decriminalization of marijuana and gay marriage—both started on the state level, where democratic forms still function. They each gathered steam slowly over the course of a decade or more and, only then, moved to the federal level. Yet working toward reforms on the state level can only go so far given that the federal government via the president, Congress, or its nine-member robed clerisy—appointed for life—can come in at any moment and overturn the democratic decisions of state governments. That’s a problem when the majority of the U.S. Congress and Senate is staffed by millionaires and billionaires. Those who aren’t in this elite wealth class aspire to it—and will likely achieve it—by servicing their financial betters during their time in office.

For social scientists honestly tracking American policy outcomes, it has long been known that the views of average citizens and “mass-based interest groups” have little or no independent influence on U.S. government policy. An academic study utilizing more than 1,700 variables found that economic elites dominate U.S. policy outcomes so completely that average U.S. citizens ultimately have “little or no independent influence.”

Citizens without wealth and connections no longer have any representation in U.S. national politics. For us, today’s two-party politics function as little more than an elaborate theatrical play—put on to make us all feel like our corporate overlords give a hoot about what we think. In reality, they view average citizens as little different than human batteries powering their globe-destroying matrix. To keep us satiated, they supply gut-destroying fast food and mind-numbing streaming shows accompanied by “social” media apps that allow us to scream into the void. Those screams, too, are used to track our every thought—and movement—to keep us spinning on hamster wheels owned by Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jeff Bezos, all of whom are basically business partners of the federal security agencies.

For all the establishment pearl-clutching over Trump’s looming reelection amounting to “losing our democracy,” the reality is that Americans haven’t lived in a democracy for a while. Rather, we reside inside an entirely new form of political economy—a corporate tyranny that masquerades in the skinsuit of our cherished republican past. If total corporate corruption of democratic processes weren’t bad enough, there’s now equally troubling ideological corruption. Nearly every one of the alphabet city agencies of the U.S. federal deep state is now staffed top to bottom by woke resistance half-wits who have zero interest in representing the views and serving the needs of their “deplorable” countrymen. Rather, they unironically understand “public service” as the act of displaying representationally correct bona fides to their childless, progress-flag waving peers in Georgetown.

The aggressive detachment of Washington, D.C., political culture from the values of the average American represents merely the tip of the iceberg regarding why the country must break up. As a nation, we cannot agree on anything practical. Over the last 53 years, precisely one amendment to the U.S. Constitution has passed—the 27th, which restricts how the Senate receives pay raises. Nearly every constitutional scholar agrees the 27th Amendment is the most inconsequential amendment of the bunch. No patient bill of rights regarding matters in health care. No economic bill of rights related to issues on the job and Americans’ evaporating stability in the job market. No consumer bill of rights related to the general poisoning of our food supply with chemicals and GMOs, nor the rise of voracious monopolies developing across nearly every major sector of the economy. No privacy amendments reflecting the omnipresent 24/7 surveillance of the citizenry—which both political parties agreed to continue in a 212-212 vote.

This is the system we must be terrified of breaking down? Sorry, Alex Garland. It’s already broken. Chaos will come. That much of his vision is true. When it does, it won’t be the fault of Middle American psychopaths with pals named “Wyatt.” Should American frustration not bubble up into some form of structural-altering revolt, that would in fact be the worst possible denouement, not only for the country but humanity. That’s because the United States does indeed play a special role in the world. But it’s time we took a long look in the mirror at what America has actually become.

Due to mammoth levels of mutual investment and interdependence between Chinese and American industry, the world’s two once-diametrically opposed political orders have moved toward each other—meeting in a middle ground of authoritarian mercantilist tyranny. This Sino-American inverted juste milieu represents a genuine third way of political economy—neither liberal, nor communist, and certainly not democratic. A system perfectly approximating the Venn diagram space between the surveillance state of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the pop culture imbecility of Idiocracy, and the libertine elitism of Brave New World. A neo-feudalism of East meets West. Consumption is its church. Pursuing DEI, carbon offsets, and representational correctness provides elites with a convenient sale of indulgences. All who oppose them will be electronically canceled.

All empires, like all nations, must end. The United States will be no different. In terms of its end, which is worse? A) a Sino-American corporate tyranny that continues to devolve step-by-step into a global “socially totalizing, surveilling, information-monopolizing, biopolitical, and martial regime,” as Arta Moeini describes it—or B) the country breaks up into smaller national units where new democratic experiments—and forms of political economy—are created, some of which will be awful and others completely awesome.

Giving states and counties more room to solve their own problems is the very essence of democracy in action, not some danger to it, as today’s pseudo progressives so frequently accuse. If Californians wish to enact a state-level single-payer “CalCare” health care program, or carry out Australia-style gun buyback efforts (both of which I very much support, incidentally), they must become all right with those measures affecting their state alone. If Arizonans want to make abortion entirely illegal, let them do that. The latter seems draconian and poorly thought through, but believing in democracy means if the local voters want to try something, they should have that ability. Maybe these policies will be popular. Maybe they’ll backfire. Maybe they’ll end up somewhere in between. Who knows? Localities need to try out new policies, rights, and agendas—see where it takes them and, most importantly, learn from their own failures.

Progressives and leftists can wish away the structure of U.S. constitutionalism all they want, but it doesn’t change our nation’s intentional—localist—design. The central goal of the Federalists of the 1780s in constructing the U.S. Constitution was to make it tremendously difficult to pass any sweeping national legislation that threatened wealthy or propertied interests. Despite the presumptions of so many, Americans are highly unlikely to witness anything approaching the New Deal coalition or the federal functionality of the 1930s through the 1960s ever again.

If “all we need” to accomplish worthwhile federal reform is just “another FDR,” then we’re doomed. The genius relative of a former president who aspired since childhood to become the greatest U.S. president in history—then acquired polio, making him highly sympathetic to the plight of the poor—who also welcomes the hatred of his fellow uber-wealthy elites? It isn’t coming around again. In America’s independence-minded political culture and business-dominated governmental structure, the New Deal remains a fluke.

If progressives and the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez-adoring “democratic socialists” haranguing so many people on Twitter and Facebook genuinely want an ultra-strong federal presence that offers Denmark-level social safety nets, the first step is not raging against fellow leftists online. Instead, it’s nothing less than organizing an entirely new U.S. constitutional convention. We must accept that if such a thing were to take place today, someone like Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson would end up the top nominee. 

For the sake of entertaining Mother Jones and Jacobin readers, though, I am happy to put aside rational doubt around this idea of constructing a new U.S. constitution that provides for the stronger federal government that American leftists covet. Imagine (just for fun) our new 21st-century constitutional convention produces an intelligible result that doesn’t resemble Hillary Clinton’s health care reform bill. Realize this thoroughly miraculous document then must be ratified by all 50 states. That includes Texas, Arizona, and Montana. Best make sure the new constitution’s gun laws are super lax and all our new rights to generous social safety nets are paid for by taxes on craft beers and avocado toast sandwiches. Otherwise, it’s not going to fly.

Middle Americans will not be told what to do. Certainly not by Washington bureaucrats like Anthony Fauci or Ketanji Brown Jackson—neither of whom they would elect to any position, including dog catcher. The coastal and metro area crowd need to move off their constant dismissal and derision of Middle America and the Southern “Bible-thumping” crowd they loathe. This 50-state tragicomedy is indeed the country where we live. A depressing fact perhaps, but also unavoidably true.

This is the system we must be terrified of breaking down? Sorry, Alex Garland. It’s already broken.

Despite what Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti—hosts of the populist online news show Breaking Points—bizarrely label “treason,” breaking up the country into different governing units with more autonomy is, at this point, our only realistic option of escaping corporate tyranny. If populist progressives truly want all the things Bernie Sanders advocates for—like single-payer health care, free state colleges, a livable federal minimum wage, and union organizing standards that approximate those of the rest of the liberal industrialized world—they should move somewhere like Vermont and enact these things into law. One problem with that plan. The Supreme Court could easily declare these state laws “unconstitutional” for made-up reasons—like a violation of the commerce clause or some other ridiculous, but routine, business-friendly interpretation of our thoroughly outdated, 237-year-old (but now unchangeable) federal governing structure.

Despite what Tablet columnist Michael Lind and many others I respect contend, finding a way to break up the country into smaller federal systems that reflect genuine regional identities and commonalities isn’t that hard. There are only a handful of states like Alaska, Hawaii, New Mexico, Iowa, and maybe North Carolina that don’t have obvious new homes in a new six-region national setup. Let their people choose what states they’d like to join up with. Those who don’t fit the new national lines can vote with their feet.

If you think the prospect of the United States breaking up into a half dozen new federalized arrangements is just as much of a daydream as a new U.S. constitution, please realize that the same things were said inside the Soviet Union by their politburo and establishment apparatchiks right up until September 1988. That’s the month nearly one-fourth of all Estonians came together in a music festival illegally celebrating their national culture—and demanding their independence from the USSR. Estonia’s so-called "Singing Revolution" set off a chain reaction that one year later brought down the Berlin Wall and, eventually, the globe’s second-most-powerful empire. If Texas or California declared independence from the United States—as they jointly do in Garland’s Civil War, a scenario that reflects Garland’s total ignorance of American politics—would the Pentagon really have the stomach to use federal troops against county police, state militias, and heavily armed (come and take it!) former U.S. citizens? I don’t think so.

A massive federal system cannot witness the present level of dysfunction, utter corruption, and total resistance to change and still hold together in perpetuity. The rugged do-it-yourself mentality that settled the frontier and made this barren land into a great and powerful empire is gone. We no longer live to produce but consume. Our entire waking lives are tempted by filth and poison. We eat too much. We drink too much. We’re having sex less often than ever before. We’re fatter than ever. We rarely exercise or go to church anymore. We spend money like they’re giving it out in the parking lot. To make ourselves feel big, we drive obscenely large trucks on decrepit highways and across failing bridges over dried-up water wells. We are ruled not by elected leaders but party-cartel appointed stooges—a Brezhnevian social grouping that believes that memorizing the right answers to the oligarchy’s tests represents creativity, science, and “resistance” to “fascism.”

We must try something new. Otherwise, we lose not only the chance of redeeming ourselves but whatever dignity America once had. The United States as a nation began with a localist revolt against a corrupt and disconnected overseer government. Could it really end any other way than precisely how it started?

B. Duncan Moench is Tablet’s social critic at large, a Research Fellow at Heterodox Academy’s Segal Center for Academic Pluralism, and a contributing writer at County Highway.