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‘What kind of American are you?’

Originally published: The Ecologist on April 16, 2024 by Brendan Montague (more by The Ecologist)  | (Posted May 02, 2024)

“Every time I survived a war zone I thought I was sending a warning home: don’t do this,” Kirsten Dunst’s character, the press photographer Lee Smith, confides.

But here we are.

Exhausted, jaded, and maximally concerned about the future prospects of humanity. That’s how I felt after watching Alex Garland’s epic Civil War from the comfortable seats at the BFI IMAX in Waterloo. But if you stare at the screen long enough, you can see hope.

Garland, in his latest directorial outing, performs an important thought experiment. What if the conflicts that have raged at the periphery of the American empire for the last century were to finally engulf its centre? Or, tangentially, what if the Trumpian dream of dictatorship, brinkmanship and warmongering were to become the American reality?


The film is at its simplest the story of a photograph. Civil War is superficially a classical movie experience, even a cliche. We follow a motley crew of cynical journalists along an episodic series of ever increasing jeopardy until we reach a bombastic finale. This is, once again, the Odyssey of our times, the hero’s journey if you like.

Indeed, we are even presented with the four ages of newsgathering. The cub photojournalist Jessie Cullen, played by Cailee Spaeny (pictured, above), who hitches a ride from New York to Washington DC. The adrenaline junkie Joel (Wagner Moura), self medicating with Vodka and cigarettes, Lee herself, trapped by success in a career defined by the worst of human trauma, and finally the wise and fatally paternal Sammy New York Times writer, brilliantly rendered by Stephen McKinley Henderson.

At this basic level, Civil War is brilliantly done. We warm to the characters as we watch their responses and relationships deepen. The slow build of the action is like listening to the strings of a violin being tightened to breaking point.

The action takes you to the edge of your seat before making you jump. The vintage soundtrack is a constant reminder that the American empire has learned nothing from Vietnam, then Afghanistan, as we metamorphosis from being the postwar into the prewar generation.

But the film gains its value from the accuracy and the urgency of its political imaginary. We are told that there was an Antifa massacre, that there is now an alliance between the ‘secessionist’ California and Texas which has taken up arms against the U.S. military, and POTUS (Nick Offerman) in his third term in the Oval Office. Florida, it is suggested, is now part of Mexico and therefore central American.


Strikingly, we are given an entirely believable cityscape where torture, mass graves, ethnic cleansing and the total destruction of cities is no longer something the American military imposes on the Oriential Other but instead is visited upon American citizens on American soil.

The possibility is vividly and terrifyingly rendered all too possible when our hapless media crew is confronted by a pink-spectacled war criminal. We are American, is their defence.

Okay. ‘What kind of American are you?’

Professionals often complain that when scriptwriters attempt to tell their stories the facts are wrong and the general impression is wildly off. I may have only spent a few weeks in Gaza and the West Bank, and just days in pre-war Baghdad.

But I have shared a considerable amount of time with war correspondents and photographers. I travelled into Iraq with the late Tom Hurndall and James Miller, both later killed by the Israeli military while reporting on the occupation.

To some extent, I see myself evolving from each of Garland’s characters as I get older. From this experience, Civil War is a brilliantly authentic and realistic presentation of how such a conflict will unfold, and how journalists will respond to it. This is exactly what war correspondents are like. This is what war is like.

Having said that, I have been surprised and alarmed at how some seasoned film reviewers have responded to the movie—as though they have not sat with a foreign correspondent for at least some decades. The complaint has been that Civil War does not provide enough story about how conflict has come about, who is fighting for what, noting that the reporters themselves barely discuss who is right and who is wrong.

It seems our comfort is itself part of our ideology. There is a lack of recognition that our characters are operating under an American totalitarian regime that “shoots journalists on sight”. In actual civil wars, it simply is not easy to establish which side you should be on—especially when, as suggested again and again—your ‘own’ political side might actually be shooting at you.

But it also reveals the lack of political antenna. The ‘sides’ in Civil War reveal themselves in their attitudes to race and their proximity to mass graves. Specifically, The Guardian reviewers all seem unable to comprehend the fact the director is saying loudly that the bad guys are the ones killing unarmed brown people.

This is the power of Alex Garland masterwork. It is so vividly real that it gives the audience all the thrill of watching a war on its frontlines while also penetrating the reality of our current proximity to a conflagration that threatens the American imperial power from both its furthest regions to its very core.

If fascism haunts the most powerful country on earth, can we simply ignore the threat and keep our heads down or do we have to mount a defence even if that means ending up in an unmarked grave. Civil War is not light entertainment.

Brendan Montague is the editor of The Ecologist.

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