‘Civil War’ Director Explains Releasing Movie During Election Year

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? And why are Texas and California allies in the film, exactly?

At a South by Southwest Film & TV panel the day after the film’s world premiere screening, the Ex Machina and Annihilation filmmaker answered a few of the burning questions about the film. 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.

“When I worked on Ex Machina, 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. “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 just dealing with Covid — the same conversations as now. Identical. So that’s where it came from.”

“America’s divisions here are echoed almost precisely in many countries around the world,” Garland continued. “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 I can show you the same stuff happening in my country. But the implications here are much greater.”

Garland also added that America’s massive availability of guns wasn’t a factor in setting the film here (despite guns being heavily 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 the film is trying to create a conversation about political divisiveness in general that vilifies the other side.

“Why are we talking and not listening?” he asked. “We’ve lost trust with the media and politicians. And some media are wonderful and some politicians are wonderful—on both sides of the divide. I have a political position. 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 this 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 one do you think has greater efficacy? That’s it. And then you try one and if that doesn’t work out, you vote it out, and you try again with 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 … I personally attach some of this to social media.”

Garland was also asked about the vagueness of the war’s conflict. The film 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) as she makes her way across a hostile and divided states of America. Yet the film avoids the current red state/blue state divisions (Texas and California are allies in its fictional conflict). In fact, the conflict’s politics are left almost entirely unexplained in the film, leaving the viewer no more clues about what led up to the conflict beyond what’s 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 says. “There’s a lot of things that are clearly answered. 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 putting 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 any traction. [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 was effusive, with viewers calling it a riveting, disturbing, masterful piece of filmmaking (read more of the audience and critic first reactions), while critics so far have given it a 77 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.’”

While 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.

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *