A Movie That Might Be Worse Than Civil War

‘Civil War’ Offers A Vision of California Fighting the U.S. That Matches Foreign Propaganda—and Misses the Point

The 2024 film Civil War is too unimaginative, writes columnist Joe Mathews. If California ever becomes an independent nation, the more likely path will be through a U.S. government meltdown—not secession. Still from Civil War. Courtesy of Miller Avenue Productions LLC.

The new film Civil War is a historic cinematic achievement. British director Alex Garland has made a movie that might be worse than a real American civil war.

Perhaps that was Garland’s intention. His film is a series of horrifying set pieces—Abu Ghraib-style torture by gas station attendants, government aerial bombings of civilians, summary execution of journalists, a massive California and Texas invasion of Washington, D.C.—that seem to add up to a warning. If we don’t steer away from our current path of polarization and political conflict, Garland suggests, this could be the end of the United States.

There’s established logic in this message. Early in the film, I kept thinking of the late, great Romanian philosopher E.M. Cioran, who wrote in his anti-existentialist 1973 masterpiece The Trouble With Being Born: “When we perceive the end in the beginning, we move faster than time. Illumination, that lightning disappointment, affords certitude which transforms disillusion into deliverance.”

But Civil War never provides the illumination or certitude that inspires action. It’s too Hollywood, which is to say that it’s too unoriginal and too violent, with too many guns.

Indeed, the film is so over-the-top that it feels uncomfortably, well, Putinist. These days, the Russian and Chinese governments, and their media organs, routinely promote the idea that the U.S. is headed for, in the words of former Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, a “bloody civil war which [will] cost thousands upon thousands of lives.” Civil War brings that propagandist vision to cinematic life.

If the U.S. does see another civil war, it will almost certainly not involve the new film’s vision of warring armies advancing to a final shootout at the White House. Nor is it likely to involve fights between groups of states, like the California–Texas alliance the film depicts. Those visions—like much of this film, where the internet rarely enters the story and the main characters are traditional still photographers—are anachronisms, owing more to the 1860s Civil War than to 21st-century realities.

If the U.S. does see another civil war, it will almost certainly not involve the new film’s vision of warring armies advancing to a final shootout at the White House.

Indeed, the real challenge of the next American civil war will be perceiving whether it is a war at all. Such a conflict won’t separate soldiers from civilians. It will be fought with cyberattacks, misinformation and disinformation, and psychological warfare. The battlegrounds will be political and legal, with warring factions seeking to cancel each other’s rights and prerogatives. It will also be diplomatic, because an American civil war would be, by definition, a world war. Our enemies will fund and fuel our conflict, while our allies will send emissaries to intervene and negotiate peace.

The fighting will not be between states, because the conflicts in our society are not primarily geographic. Our most bitter fault lines are around ideology, race, gender, age, class, education, and immigrant status. A civil war will map those divides within our metro regions, within our cities, even within our neighborhoods.

For these reasons, it’s time to retire the idea of California “secession,” even for those of us who are sympathetic to making California independent by peaceful means. Let’s face facts: The Golden State is never going to break away and fire on Camp Pendleton, like South Carolina fired on Fort Sumter in 1861. And we certainly aren’t going to send troops to march on Washington. We have no military, and no offensive warfare beyond Gov. Newsom’s Fox News appearances.

No—if California ever becomes an independent nation, the more likely path will be through a U.S. government meltdown.

Unfortunately, that scenario now seems possible. It is easy to imagine a fascist president, with a compliant Supreme Court and a cowed Congress, using his military to punish cities and communities whose actions he doesn’t like. It’s also possible to imagine such a president invoking executive powers to shut down Congress (as Donald Trump attempted on January 6) or government agencies that won’t bend to his command.

In such a circumstance, California, without representation in Congress, will have little choice but to take on national duties. Behaving more like countries, California and other unrepresented states might drift naturally to formal breakup, the current republic ending not with war but with written agreements between states and a disintegrated federal government.

To make a believable movie about such a real American civil war would require a filmmaker with the virtuosity of the late Akira Kurosawa, whose 1950 film Rashomon famously tells one story from multiple, contradictory perspectives. Perhaps the San Fernando Valley auteur Paul Thomas Anderson could pull off such a film (he used a similar technique in Magnolia). Maybe Drew Goddard, writer-director of the Lake Tahoe noir Bad Times at the El Royale, could manage it.

Garland’s film never comes close. We never get to know the civil war’s combatants, some of whom seem like cartoon villains. Instead, the director tells his story through the narrow perspectives of four journalists driving from New York to Washington. All but the main character, played by Kirsten Dunst, come off as callous, selfish, or vaguely ridiculous.

As the president is about to be executed, one journalist asks the soldiers to wait a second because “I need a quote.”

The film feels unimaginative because the idea of another American civil war is actually an old one. For example, Marvel made a much smarter film in 2016 about what drives us to war when feuding superheroes devoted to Captain America and Iron Man turned on each other in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War.

But watching this Civil War, I found myself thinking of the 1997 satire The Second American Civil War. That cable TV movie, with scenes filmed at Los Angeles City Hall and the State Capitol in Sacramento, envisioned a future that looks too much like our present, with Idaho sparking a civil war in a country badly divided by race, immigration, politics, and media nonsense.

Like Garland’s film, it hid from the harder questions by putting journalists at center stage. But for all its goofiness, that 27-year-old film was the wiser, more relevant, and more responsible movie.

“The country is falling apart,” says a TV producer in the satire. “We don’t need exclamation marks.”


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