The Inverse Interview

Alex Garland Takes the Fight to Us

“People keep saying the film is not political. I think they're just missing the point.”

Alex Garland on the set of Civil War
The Inverse Interview

Before Alex Garland’s explosive apocalypse movie Civil War could even hit theaters, it was already one of the most divisive films of the year. Its depiction of a near-future United States torn apart by a civil war garnered criticisms over its apparent ignorance — or maybe blatant avoidance — of the country’s real-world political landscape. But the biggest, and most baffling, criticism against Civil War is that it is “apolitical.” That’s the criticism that Garland bristles against the most.

“People keep saying the film is not political. I think they're just missing the point,” Garland tells Inverse. “It's just not stating politics in the way they want it to be stated.”

“I just wanted to make old-fashioned news reporters into heroes.”

Civil War follows seasoned war photographer Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst), her adrenaline-junkie colleague Joel (Wagner Moura), veteran journalist Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), and aspiring photojournalist Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) as they traverse the war-torn United States at the tail end of a brutal conflict between a fascist president (Nick Offerman) and secessionist forces. When we join them, our heroes are headed to Washington, D.C., with the hopes of interviewing and photographing the president before the encroaching Western Forces (California and Texas) or the Florida Alliance get to him — and kill him — first.

Lee (Dunst) shields Jessie (Spaeny) from oncoming fire.


Audiences are dropped right into this war-torn world with no pretext, forced to glean what we can from Lee, Joel, Sammy, and Jessie’s travels across the country. The worldbuilding is maddeningly vague (perhaps dangerously so, according to some critics). We have no idea of what the actual beliefs or politics are of the separate factions. Is the president a Trump analog? Is this inspired by actual real-world extremism? Those questions aren’t answered — though they may have been in an original version where the film opens with a set of captions explaining the alternate history. But Garland ended up nixing these captions.

“I thought, it's actually not necessary because audiences ideally would make their own interpretation: ‘What threatens us? What is there around right now that might lead us to this place?’ And I leave that to them,” Garland says.

Garland may leave it up to his audience to parse out Civil War’s meaning for themselves. But in conversation with the director, along with cast members Wagner Moura and Nick Offerman, it’s clear that everyone involved has plenty to say about politics, journalism, modern culture, and how the movie wraps them all together into a not-so-tidy package.

Spoilers for Civil War follow.

Turning Journalists Into Heroes

By making the journalists his heroes in Civil War, Garland is making his “own low-level political statement.”


The journalists don’t make many distinctions about who’s fighting who, and the movie communicates as much. They’re objective observers, witnessing bloodshed and brutality on a scale that’s rattling to watch but that they have to move past in service of the story. Garland wanted Civil War to reflect that kind of unbiased observation that journalists have to do every day — which he believes is the most politically charged statement his movie could make.

“I just wanted to make old-fashioned news reporters into heroes. Even that is its own low-level political statement,” Garland says, adding that to call his movie apolitical “is an attitude that belongs to the bias we now expect from news services. On some level, I just wanted to make journalists heroes because I felt that the demonization of journalists was idiotic.”

That aspect may be the most fantastical part of Civil War — not its near-future dystopian depiction of the country, but its depiction of how the Fourth Estate is still considered a venerated institution even as society crumbles around them. “PRESS” helmets and bulletproof vests get the group through some of the stickiest situations and offer them a semblance of protection that some journalists today wouldn’t even dream of having. The “demonization” of the press, as Garland says, has escalated to frightening heights, with death threats and targeted shootings occurring with horrifying frequency.

Garland wants Civil War to be a rebuttal against journalists that are unfairly “demonized.”


“Because journalists have become unpopular [as] one of the consequences of very large, very biased news organizations, [audiences]... felt very hostile to them,” Garland says. “You should not attack journalists. You need journalists. So that's why I put them in front and center.”

Moura, who plays one of the film’s central journalists, always had an appreciation for the profession, after briefly working as a journalist in a previous career. But through his research for his role as Joel, he found that “war journalism is a whole different thing.”

“I'm very grateful for war correspondents, because they bring us images and stories that really desensitize our hearts for the horrors of war and everything. But also in their personal lives, there's a lot of damage,” Moura tells Inverse.

Only in America

“That thing over and over again, ‘What kind of American are you?’ That was personally very hard for me,” Wagner Moura says of the most difficult scene for him to film.


The damage of witnessing bloodshed on a massive scale takes its toll on Civil War’s journalists, especially Dunst’s Lee Smith, a veteran war photographer, who, at one point in the film, opines that all the work she did in war zones overseas has amounted to nothing. “Every time I survived a war zone, I thought I was sending a warning home. Don’t do this. But here we are,” she mournfully says. That’s the crux of Garland’s film: it couldn’t happen here. And yet it does.

“America is not like any other country in the world because America is the only country that the rest of the world is, in some ways, constantly looking towards,” Garland says. “And I think people think the word fascist as being a sort of distant word, belonging to a distant term. I personally don't see it as that. I see it as a state that governments can get into sometimes without even meaning to. America is [not] immune to it.”

“Audiences ideally would make their own interpretation.”

As a British filmmaker — which critics have attributed as the reason that Civil War’s state alliances make no sense to current political divisions — Garland doesn’t believe his outsider perspective is necessarily the reason he’s the one telling this story. His reason is to make this a universal warning about the very real threat of fascism creeping up into any government institution.

“It does absolutely relate to America,” he says. “It also relates to my country, it relates to places in the Middle East, it relates to places in Asia and South America. It's quite easy to find countries that are on that drift.”

Nick Offerman, who worked with Garland previously on Devs, jumped at the chance to work with the director again. “The crucible of Alex Garland's writing are always these human emotional questions of frailty and vulnerability,” he says.


So how does Garland show the breakdown of a government so corrupt that half of its country secedes, plunging its people into a devastating civil war? By not giving away too much. The history of this near-future dystopia is deliberately vague. We know that Offerman’s dictatorial president is in his third term (“that means that they must have deliberately been gone about dismantling constitutional precedents,” Garland says) and that the government has disbanded the FBI (“if a president chooses to undermine or dismantle a law enforcement agency, what they're doing is weakening something that might threaten them”). But otherwise, Garland was careful about not overloading his audience with exposition. Though he mapped out the film’s alternate history in the script, he deliberately left most of it out of the finished version.

“All that matters is it's a civil war.”

Offerman, who plays the president in a handful of scenes, which he says only took him two days to film, thinks the vagueness of its world is essential to the film.

“I love the fact of keeping things purposefully vague or leaning towards opacity, where it's like, 'It doesn't matter. It's the world. It doesn't matter if it's America or Hungary or Brazil. All that matters is it's a civil war,’” Offerman tells Inverse. “We're going through it with these journalists, and this work of art will hopefully make you think about our tendency to do this. And are we happy about that, or should we consider another tact?'"

The Meaning Behind Civil War’s Final Photograph

The final showdown in the White House is the film’s horrifying centerpiece.


Civil War is less concerned with the details as it is with its images, and all the dissonance of violence sitting alongside stupidity. Graffiti reading “Go Steelers” exists in the same frame as several bodies hanging from a highway bridge. Florida Alliance soldiers are brutally slaughtered while wearing Hawaiian shirts. It all accumulates in a final image playing over the credits — spoiler alert — of the president with a bullet hole in his head, and the soldiers who assassinated him smiling and posing with the body. It’s a striking visual to end on, and one that recalls countless real-world war photographs. A reference that was intentional, Garland says.

“There are actually many versions of that photo with different people. It's a thing about humans hunting humans that when the human is successfully hunted, they get treated like a trophy,” Garland says.

Cailee Spaeny’s Jessie gets the final shot.


That capture and assassination of the president, who’s almost treated like the final boss in a riveting long-take sequence that follows the journalists as they follow the troops storming the White House, is treated as a sort of victory as well — but a deeply bitter one. In the final stretch down the hallway to the Oval Office, Jessie is nearly killed by a surviving Secret Service officer — until Lee jumps in her way and gets fatally shot. As Lee falls down in excruciating slow motion, Jessie watches in blank-faced horror, pulling out her camera and snapping the shot.

Jessie and Joel then somberly make their way toward the cowering president, who gives Joel the final quote he wants — “Don’t let them kill me!” — and she gets that final photograph that plays over the credits, at great “personal cost, and not just her personal cost, but [to] people around her,” Garland says. “But that's part of the transactional deal that sometimes people have to make to do that thing.”

But that’s the cynical thesis of Garland’s movie, that journalists will literally lay their lives on the line for the perfect shot. It’s the part of the movie that is designed to resonate with audiences long after they’ve left the theater, and that will have wider implications for the future of the world in Civil War.

“In 20 years’ time, what would be the image that survived this?” Garland says. “If there was a news article that was illustrative of that moment, what would that image be? That is the image she takes.”

Starting Conversations

Garland urges audiences to make their own readings of his movie.


Civil War is a movie that Garland hopes will make people think and that will start conversations. But despite his intentions, he’s aware that there will inevitably be a willful misreading not just of his film, but of his words. The recent discourse around his alleged plans to retire from directing, for example, is what he considers a microcosm of this hypercharged culture.

“I didn’t say that,” Garland says when I bring up the quote about his retirement, adding, “I actually see this as being one of the strange things about life right now is the way people grab the meaning they in some ways are inclined to read without necessarily being too attached to the words that were actually spoken. And this is happening in a much broader sense in public discourse, sometimes on things that are very consequential.”

He refers to, most recently, Jonathan Glazer’s statement on the ongoing military bombardment on Gaza, which the Oscar winner decried during his acceptance speech for The Zone of Interest’s win. It incited a culture war, with many misreading the Jewish director’s statement as being anti-Semitic.

“This is happening in a much broader sense in public discourse, sometimes on things that are very consequential.”

“I thought, ‘I simply do not understand how the interpretation that is being placed on these words is derived from what he actually said,’” Garland says. “He clearly did not say that. You would have to essentially take a tiny number of words from the beginning of the statement and ignore the words that followed, but that is on you.”

That’s why Garland stresses the importance of clear-eyed journalism in Civil War. Let the images stand for themselves, and let people make of those images what they will. Some might view it as a spineless lack of a political stance on Garland’s part, but it’s his homage to old-fashioned journalism: to show this near-future dystopia, and what could happen, “with clarity and honesty.”

Civil War is playing in IMAX now.

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