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What Does Dystopian Film “Civil War” Say About the Current Reality in the US?

Beyond serving as harrowing entertainment, the film explores real fears about social divides in the contemporary US.

Kirsten Dunst at a special screening of Civil War at The Cinema in The Power Station on March 26, 2024, in London, England.

There is a scene two-thirds of the way through the film Civil War, which has seen considerable success at the box office since its release, where it becomes abundantly clear who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. An unnamed soldier, (played by Jesse Plemons), is casually interrogating a group of journalists who have the misfortune of encountering him while he and a comrade are cleaning up after an atrocity. Plemons — wearing rose-colored glasses — asks the journalists where they are from, which America are they from. The answers they give have immediate life-and-death consequences. That scene is harrowing, not only because of its cinematic impact, but also because of what it says about the country we currently inhabit. As such it, and the film it comes from, is a matter worth excavating.

There is no small number of people living in the U.S. today — like the Plemons character — who consider themselves the “true Americans.” A good number of them inhabit the rust belt, rural areas and suburbs, or are under the spell of evangelicalism. They have seen the world their parents inhabited — which included a rising standard of living, the dominance of the nuclear family, the privilege of being part of the white majority, and the hegemony of Christian churches — change beyond recognition. In turn, the educated, the city dwellers, the professionals, the multitudes from different backgrounds and countries who comprise the non-white population, are seen as strangers and interlopers, much in the way far right demagogues aim their bile at immigrants daring to come to the U.S. for a better life. As such, one sees a sharp divide among people who ostensibly share the things that constitute a nationality: a common language, culture and social mores.

While the scene with the journalists is keenly unsettling — and it must be witnessed for its full impact (and to avoid spoilers) — it is arguably not the most disturbing in the movie. That distinction goes to the scene in the film’s culmination, about which, more in a minute.

For those who’ve not seen the movie, its premise is straightforward. For reasons unexplained, the U.S. is in the midst of a conflict in which the “Western Alliance” (centered on a union of Texas and California), is at war with forces headquartered in Washington, D.C., led by a president pontificating about a postwar world in which once again people in the U.S. can pledge allegiance to “the flag, the nation, and to God.”

To the degree that there is a villain here, it is the president. As such, some have taken the film to be about a fascist apprehending of power, though there is nothing in it that explicitly says as much. Regardless, the film, as the scene above reveals, deals squarely with the current polarization. It also addresses issues of war and peace, journalistic ethics and morality — matters beyond what we can address here.

That said, watching this descent into all-out upheaval, one wonders, how did things get to such a point? While it is a film, with the requisite license in creativity, it nonetheless provokes reflection on the tenuous state of things in the current and non-cinematic United States. On that, a few thoughts.

Firstly, we find ourselves today in a country where the institutions of power vital to the operation of the republic are increasingly seen as illegitimate. Much as the Wizard of Oz’s power revolved around myth over actuality, the “sacred” institutions — such as the presidency, Congress and the Supreme Court, along with state and local governing bodies — have no curtain to mask their secular partisanship and dysfunction. This is not a benign, abstract observation. As any student of history can tell you, crises of legitimacy are the terra firma for major disorder, coups, wars and revolutions.

It is worth digging into this some. The current chief executive of the U.S. is someone who was in his prime during the Reagan and first Bush eras. Few are those who see him as an inspiration; rather he is largely seen as the best of bad options. He occupies an office that is now routinely occupied by the loser of the majority vote. All of which undercuts the mythology of “our great democracy” that every school child is steeped in. Similarly, Congress, which holds the nation’s purse strings and is supposed to be an instrument of adaptation, is the site of intractable battles and score-settling. Things are at the point that the government’s ability to underwrite the wars needed to protect its geopolitical perch, hangs in the balance — today resolved, tomorrow unclear. And this comes on the heels of ignominious adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan — efforts that were supposed to create a new American century. And then there is the Supreme Court, the disinterested sages sitting above it all, now controlled by a majority made up of religious zealots, some of whom openly proclaim they are acting in accordance with “godliness,” over secular concerns.

Add to this the resurgence of the worst the country has put forward: white supremacy, hallowing of violence, and commodification of everything from the sacred to the profane. This amid an economy grounded increasingly on ether, such as the dizzying way banks and business appear to conjure wealth from thin air — before the requisite bursting of the bubble — to the mightiest minds of technology bringing forth creations that make them, and many thousands of others, redundant, adding to the millions already hanging to the fringes or existing outside the formal economy.

Some see all this and predict we are on the brink of fascism. A leap in state repression is certainly possible, building on the carceral instruments that already exist, and measures leveled at everyone, from those advocating for Black Lives to Gaza, and beyond. However, it would seem more accurate to say we are already in the midst of an unraveling and accelerating decline, whose resolution will be contentious, fraught, and to a great degree, unpredictable. The one clear thing is that the world is changing, and the U.S.’s preeminent place in it is no longer assured. All of this helps explain why there is a film — one generating enormous interest — that posits a scenario of the United States in the thick of a violent conflagration, having been ripped apart, though for reasons unclear in the movie.

The culminating scene in the film involves an armed assault on the White House aimed at deposing the government in power. Watching it brought to mind a few things. One is that of an opinion piece in The New York Times in June 2016, before Donald Trump won the election. In it, David Post, a retired law professor, countered those unconcerned about what a Trump presidency could mean, noting, “There’s only one of those three branches [of the federal government] that actually has the guns in its hands, and that’s the executive.” The scene brings home the fact that dislodging such power, once firmly in place, can become a highly fraught affair. This is not to argue the film is predictive — the future, as they say, is unwritten — but that it reveals a truth too often overlooked, if not outright denied. As much as the media superstructure in the U.S. promotes electoral politics as the quintessential arena where political power is determined, the secret — hiding in plain sight — is that such power rests on what Max Weber described as “the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force.” The film lays that reality bare.

And that point goes hand in hand with something else, largely not addressed in the various reviews and commentary of the film. It is astonishing (or should be) that such a fictive scene would be playing out in a contemporary movie. True, the White House has imaginatively been put under siege by Hollywood in the past, but it was largely by malevolent aliens, and other external forces, not an army of all too familiar Americans. This is what we are going to the movies to see in 2024.

Beyond serving as harrowing entertainment, does this film give us a glimpse of where our society is headed? No one has that type of crystal ball. However, it can be said with some confidence that the future will be more fraught than the present we inhabit. Saying that, there is something in the film worth keeping in mind. Throughout, we see our battle-hardened war photographers encounter brutality after brutality, but as jaded as they may be, they are never stripped of their humanity: one sees the character Lee, lying on the ground to dodge sniper bullets, looking at the beauty of nearby flowers. It is meant as a counterpoint to the violence surrounding her, but underscores that for all its fury, the movie is full of love for its central characters who come to know and care deeply for each other. The film is not a political polemic, and one is free to draw the conclusions from it that one will. That said, and with such a scene in mind, if we are to bring forward a better world, we need to nurture and cherish the bonds of care and solidarity crucial for a movement strong enough to counter and advance beyond the mighty challenges ahead.

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