Civil War’s Politics Aren’t Clear, and That's the Point

"You don't know what side you're fighting for?"

Kirsten Dunst in A24's 'Civil War'

Civil War is already shaping up to be one of the most divisive films of the year. That's due, in no small part, to the movie's widely reported, largely apolitical approach to its story, which revolves around a near-future war in which California and Texas have banded together to overthrow the United States government and secede from the nation. The Alex Garland-directed thriller was clearly written and conceived with America's current, increasingly divided state in mind, and yet it doesn't concern itself too much with the specifics of its heightened political landscape.

As a matter of fact, it's never made clear in the film what caused California and Texas to rebel against the rest of the U.S. and its blustery president (Nick Offerman) in the first place. The issues at the center of Civil War's military conflict are never revealed, and one memorable scene involving a standoff with a sniper and a pair of soldiers argues very pointedly that they don't matter. In response, some have argued that Civil War's vague politics have rendered the movie toothless and prevented it from saying anything of actual worth about America.

This writer, respectfully, disagrees.

Spoilers for Civil War follow.

Civil War’s characters don’t pick a side. They simply observe and capture what they see.


Civil War is a lot of things, but it isn't didactic. It doesn't tell you what you're supposed to think, nor does it exist to affirm any of its viewers' political opinions. In the lead-up to Civil War's release, many of its critics and early naysayers have questioned why Garland would even choose to make a film like it set in America if he wasn't going to say anything about any of the current issues that are tearing the United States and its citizens apart. Those who feel that way are entitled to think so, but it's clear once you watch Civil War that it was never intended to be a treatise on any specific political subject. That doesn't mean it doesn't have a point of view or something to say about America.

On the contrary, the film has strong thoughts about the brand of exclusionary thinking that Americans are extremely good at adopting. As history has repeatedly proven, this country's citizens have a habit of turning a blind eye to the horrors of the world because many of them, especially the most horrific global conflicts happening right now, unfold overseas. It's easy to pretend something isn't happening when it's taking place an ocean and multiple countries away, and therein lies the purpose and brilliance of Civil War's story and setting. Garland's film imagines an instance in which war has been physically brought back to the States, and it posits how modern-day Americans would respond to such an occurrence.

Some characters use it as an excuse to take their darkest and most tribalistic beliefs even further. Others, like the inhabitants of a seemingly peaceful town that the film's protagonists run across near its midpoint, do their best to pretend nothing’s wrong. They try desperately to avoid acknowledging the reality of the world around them — and even go so far as to station snipers on the rooftops of every building to ensure that no one upsets their carefully constructed sense of peace. Different characters, like the two soldiers mentioned earlier, choose to flatten everything down to a battle between them and those who want to kill them.

“Every time I survived a war zone, I thought I was sending a warning home.”


At the center of all of this, Civil War places its leads, Lee (Kirsten Dunst), Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), and Joel (Wagner Moura), a trio of journalists who neither participate in the film's eponymous conflict nor look away from it. They engage with it but never pick a side or espouse their political beliefs at any point, and that ambiguity adds layers of complexity to Civil War and its action sequences, which Jessie and Lee capture as much of as they possibly can.

Garland has clear reverence for the work of wartime photographers, but he also has thorny, provocative questions on his mind about the roles they, like the rest of us, serve in a 21st-century world that has become so desensitized to violence and war. What power do images of dead soldiers and hanged citizens still hold in our current world? At what point does engaging in the horrors of human conflict become, as it does with Joel and Jessie, performative and self-serving? Conversely, at what point does purposeful disengagement become hostile?

Had Garland filled Civil War with exposition dumps about its two opposing military forces or the events that led to their battle, he would have risked distracting from the film's larger points. Even one scene in which Stephen McKinley Henderson's Sammy mentions that Offerman's president authorized airstrikes on American citizens and took a third term in office comes dangerously close to doing that because Civil War isn't about any one political issue. It's a movie set in an America that has already been driven past the brink of violence, and it's ultimately concerned with how a country's inability to collectively address major issues can facilitate violent conflicts like the one that unfolds throughout it.

Civil War doesn’t let the specifics of its wartorn, near-future world get in the way of its story.


For as much noise as has been made about Civil War's apolitical perspective, the film doesn't completely shy away from political commentary. (One scene involving a terrifyingly zealous soldier played by Jesse Plemons, for instance, explicitly spotlights the darkness of a very American brand of xenophobia.) The movie just doesn't want to give its viewers an easy way out by letting them know the political views of its characters.

By choosing not to root itself in one obvious corner of the political spectrum, it forces those watching to consider larger questions about how we should engage with the global issues of our time. Do we ignore them? Fight to end them? If so, militaristically or politically? Or do we try to capture them in all their horror and hope that's enough? One doesn't need to know the details of a fictional president's policies to find such matters compelling.

Civil War is now playing in theaters.

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