‘Civil War’ Director Blasts “Incredibly Dangerous” Political Divide in Interview

Civil War writer-director Alex Garland is addressing some of the biggest questions circling his upcoming A24 action-drama: Why now? What is he trying to say with this film? And why are Texas and California allies in his fictional conflict, exactly?

At a South by Southwest Film & TV panel the day after the film’s world premiere screening, the Ex Machina and Annihilation filmmaker broke his silence on these topics and more. Civil War has raised eyebrows for its timing, coming amid a contentious election year in which President Biden has claimed “democracy is at stake” given his opponent Donald Trump’s history of attempts to subvert election laws.

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“When I worked on Ex Machina, [which was] about AI, people sometimes use the word ‘prescient’ or ‘predictive’ [to describe the film] and I always feel slightly embarrassed when people say that because at the time I wrote it, there was [already] a huge debate happening about it,” Garland said when asked about the film’s timing. “I think all of the topics in in [Civil War] have been a part of a huge public debate for years and years. These debates have been growing and growing in volume and awareness, but none of that is secret or unknown to almost anybody. I thought that everybody understands these terms and, at that point, I just felt compelled to write about it. If you cast your mind back to when I wrote this in June four years ago, there was an election coming and we’re dealing with Covid — the same conversations as now. Identical. So that’s where it came from.”

Garland added that the film isn’t meant to specifically be a criticism of the United States. “America’s divisions are echoed almost precisely in many countries around the world,” the British filmmaker said. “In the case of America, there’s an extra danger given its power and importance in the world. America has an internal concept in its exceptionalism that means it feels it’s immune to some kinds of problems. One of the things history shows us is that nobody is immune. Nobody is exceptional. And if we don’t apply rationality and decency and thoughtfulness to these problems, in any place, it can get out of control … I’m not trying to locate [these problems] to America, that would be factually wrong. I can take you back home [to Britain] and can show you the same stuff happening in my country. But the implications here are much greater.”

Garland added that America’s massive availability of guns wasn’t necessarily a civil war risk factor (though guns are extensively used in the film). “Any country can disintegrate into civil war whether there are guns floating around the country or not,” he noted. “Some civil wars have been carried out with machetes and still managed to kill a million people.”

At one point, Garland rather passionately pointed out that Civil War is trying to create a conversation about political divisiveness in general that vilifies the other side; ratcheting up rhetoric into an ethical debate which makes it easier to see others as evil — and once somebody is considered morally wrong, their opponents can justify all sorts of extreme measures to stop them.

“Why are we talking and not listening?” he asked. “We’ve lost trust in the media and politicians. And some in the media are wonderful and some politicians are wonderful—on both sides of the divide. I have a political position and I have good friends on the other side of that political divide. Honestly, I’m not trying to be cute: What’s so hard about that? Why are we shutting [conversation] down? Left and right are ideological arguments about how to run a state. That’s all they are. They are not a right or wrong, or good and bad. It’s which do you think has greater efficacy? That’s it. You try one, and if that doesn’t work out, you vote it out, and you try again a different way. That’s a process. But we’ve made it into ‘good and bad.’ We made it into a moral issue, and it’s fucking idiotic, and incredibly dangerous … I personally [blame] some of this on social media. There is a an interaction that exists human-to-human that floats away when it reaches a public forum.”

Garland was also asked about the vagueness of the war’s politics in his film. Civil War imagines a near-future dystopia where the United States has been torn apart under the authoritarian rule of a three-term president (Nick Offerman). The story follows a journalist (Kirsten Dunst) and her colleagues as they make their way across a hostile and divided states of America. Yet the film avoids typical red state/blue state divisions (Texas and California are allies). The conflict’s politics are left almost entirely unexplained leaving the viewer with no more clues about what led up to the battle beyond what’s already been revealed in the trailers (though one of the president’s first actions was to disband the FBI, which seems like a nod to Trump, who has called to “defund” the Bureau).

“I personally think questions are answered,” Garland said. “There is a fascist president who smashed the Constitution and attacked [American] citizens. And that is a very clear, answered statement. If you want to think about why Texas and California might be allied, and put aside their political differences, the answer would be implicit in that. So I think answers are there but you have to step to it and not expect to be spoon fed these things. It makes assumptions about the audience.

“The warnings [about the country falling apart] all out there, but for some reason they don’t get any traction,” he added. “[I wondered,] ‘Is it the polarization? Is it just that we are not able to absorb any information because of the position we’ve already taken?’ Hence, making a movie that pulls the polarization out of it.”

The audience reaction to the film has been very effusive, with viewers calling it a riveting, disturbing, masterful piece of filmmaking (read the audience and critic first reactions), while critics so far have given it a 83 percent on Rotten Tomatoes (read The Hollywood Reporter’s review).

The film’s timing has been a source of debate online. “The potential danger is that [right-wing] groups are not known for media literacy or nuance,” wrote one reader in an American Civil war subreddit before the film’s SXSW premiere. “And a psychotic gang of rednecks committing terrorism [in the film] to ‘own the libs’ might be obvious criticism to us, but might be interpreted as a role model to MAGA groups if not portrayed carefully.'”

Others have said the film’s subject matter seems too close to home right now. “The idea of another American civil war happening today actually keeps me up at night,” wrote another reader on the American Civil War subreddit. “This is a movie that I want to keep far away from. Even if it’s based on a political scenario so far removed from our own. I just do not want to entertain the notion of something so horrible.”

While the idea of a modern-day civil war might seem far-fetched, a 2022 poll by YouGov and the Economist found that 40 percent of Americans believe a new civil war is “at least somewhat likely in the next 10 years.”

Civil War also stars Wagner Moura, Cailee Spaeny, Stephen McKinley Henderson and Sonoya Mizuno. The film will be released in theaters and IMAX on April 12.

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