The Meaninglessness Is the Point

Kirsten Dunst in 'Civil War.' (Photo: Courtesy of A24)

Amid the hyperpolarized conditions of 2024, one may be forgiven for being skeptical about a film literally called Civil War. The title and premise suggest a fearmongering mess of a partisan fever dream, the cinematic equivalent of those bingo-card essays in glossy magazines assuring intelligent readers that this time it’s different while playing on their most banal fears and hatreds. And yet the film has generally been infuriating to people for precisely the opposite reason. 

Since its release last week, Alex Garland’s Civil War has been called out for being insufficiently partisan—divisive for being un-divisive. It goes out of its way to be politically unrecognizable, to not be about the issues and identities we observe driving our fiercest conflicts today. And so the film manages to play on our abstract fears without playing on our concrete hatreds. Far from avoiding the issues, this zeroes in on the biggest issue at stake in all wide-eyed frothy-mouthed civil war discourse: the revolutionary barbarization that war inflicts on people who look vaguely like us.

Civil War takes place in a somewhat anachronistic, somewhat familiar American Northeast, when the United States has split apart along state lines. The South and the Pacific Northwest have become little regional confederacies. The united Western Forces of California and Texas march eastward against the rump American government in Washington, D.C., which is rapidly losing authority over its remaining territory. A group of journalists, around whom the film centers, begin in Brooklyn, but as police put down water riots and smoke fills the Manhattan skyline, they hit the road.

The journalists—played by Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, Stephen McKinley Henderson, and Cailee Spaenythe—drive south to interview the Trumpy-ish president of the United States in the White House (Nick Offerman). As they travel across war-torn New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, they encounter blackpilled American civil warriors here and there, learning about themselves and who they truly are along the way. Or something. Whenever they flash their physical camera, the screen freezes to a black-and-white still of the photo they just took, the one apparently to be filed with whatever print newspapers are least defunct. It’s war reporting, but it’s from the ‘90s! 

Before pointing out its key virtue, it should be said: Civil War is an objectively bad movie. Its plot is forgettable, its dialogue is forced, its characters develop predictably and uninterestingly, and everything compelling occurs by the midway point. 

But that said, the most surprising and compelling aspect of the film is its world-building. Civil War really only tries to do one thing: depict the unmitigated horror of war and the dedication of war reporters. It does this splendidly, resulting in a world for earnest chroniclers of human savagery. Everything else is just the setting. That setting happens to be a vaguely post-apocalyptic wartime United States, but it could just as easily have been Somalia, or Ukraine, or Coruscant. Civil War’s chief accomplishment is being a convincing film about war itself, and about what war does to people. 

So, those complaining that the political divides in the film are unrealistic, that the real next civil war will be Woke vs. MAGA or Antifa vs. Boogaloo or High Elves vs. Hobbits or whatever fight some internet warrior is salivating over while losing money on PredictIt, are completely missing the point. A new American civil war could indeed break out over one of those divides, or it could break out over something else. The particulars of that divide might matter significantly for how a civil war could erupt and how it would conclude. They’d certainly matter for assessing the self-understandings of combatants and cheerleaders in those phases as well. But Civil War doesn’t care about how civil wars start or end. Instead, it presents an image of how they’re experienced through the long dark middle. And as so many conflicts around the globe continue to remind us, those long dark middles can draw on forever. 

The long dark middle of Civil War’s civil war is equal parts mundane and murderous, but never messianic. Endless rambles over zombie-movie suburbia, empty strip malls pocked with bomb craters, are punctuated by fleeting episodes of obscene and senseless violence—torture, summary execution, gratuitous blood and gore—perpetrated by individuals indulging their cruelty with casual glee or cold professionalism. The journalists are sometimes captured by the Western Forces, other times embedded with them. Gender-integrated armies of ethnically diverse young Americans, on both sides, kill each other. Nobody really seems self-righteous about anything, and every cause seems small and petty. The war is just a part of the environment—and everyone adapts. Identities and ideologies probably matter to these people a little bit. But the war is all around them, whatever anyone’s fighting for. 

If Civil War’s divisions were more “accurate,” there’s a good chance all of us watching would intuitively pick a side. We might sympathize with the faction fighting against those we think hate us, maybe wargame out a realignment in domestic geopolitics, and perhaps surrender to our darkest angels. But the film’s divisions are perfectly calibrated to force us to stare at a war among our countrymen without being able to see ourselves as the good guys. We’re forced to look at ourselves disfigured in our souls. 

So the film isn’t ultimately a prophetic warning of democracy dying in darkness, a call-to-arms for peace before the storm. Nor is it a metaphor for the surreal meaninglessness of our actual political divisions. I don’t know if we’ll find ourselves in civil war again or not; I pray we won’t. I don’t know how deep the conflicts in our politics really go—perhaps all the way down, perhaps not. Whatever the answer to those questions is, Civil War is just a meditation on what that sorry state would do to us. We can take our own insights from there.

Like most reviewers, I came out of Civil War with my own convictions unchallenged, my favorite lessons re-learned. We fight for our ideals, but we also simply fight, and should never forget that. War makes us ugly; conquer your own hatred, be beautiful. And were the Union to fall, we’d miss it hard.

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