Public Media Arts Hub

New film 'Civil War' explores a divided America at war with itself


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Geoff Bennett: The new film "Civil War" is stirring debate and provoking conversation about where a divided nation could lead.

It topped the domestic box office this weekend with a nearly $26 million opening, the biggest ever for its independent production company, A24 Studios.

Jeffrey Brown talks to the film's director as part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Actress: Nineteen states.

Jeffrey Brown: The time, the near future. The place, the Eastern part of the United States, now a battle zone of armies, militias, armed individuals guarding their property.

Actor: You don't know what side they're fighting for.

Actor: Someone's trying to kill us. We are trying to kill them.

Jeffrey Brown: We don't know why this is happening, what fActors brought the country to the brink. We just see and feel what it could be like if America really was at war with itself.

Jesse Plemons, Actor: What kind of American are you?

Jeffrey Brown: British director and writer Alex Garland.

Alex Garland, Director: I took on the subject because I had a set of anxieties and worries, and I wanted to join the conversation surrounding those anxieties and hopefully contribute to it.

Jeffrey Brown: And those anxieties, those fears, how do you define them?

Alex Garland: I would define them as a real concern about the power and growth of extremist thinking within your country, my country, and many European countries.

The essence of the film in political terms is absolutely extremist versus centrist, yes. It is, what happens when extremists are not limited in their journey?

Jeffrey Brown: Garland's chief protagonists, a group of journalists, led by a veteran war photographer played by Kirsten Dunst, familiar with covering horror elsewhere in the world, but now seeing it at home.

Kirsten Dunst, Actress: Every time I survived a war zone, I thought I was sending a warning home: Don't do this. But here we are.

Jeffrey Brown: As they travel behind the lines of an invasion by the so-called Western Forces of California and Texas, attacking Washington, D.C., where the president, played by Nick Offerman, has just taken a third term.

Nick Offerman, Actor: Citizens of America.

Jeffrey Brown: Who's good or bad, right or wrong, right or left? We don't really know. This is a kind of warning, but it's for us to fill in the details.

The details, the politics are less important than just putting us in this place?

Alex Garland: I would question your use of the word politics, because the use you are using of politics is a politics which is defined by left and right. And the one I'm talking about is not left versus right. It's extremist versus centrist.

Jeffrey Brown: For you, this is a political film?

Alex Garland: For me, it categorically is a political film. It's just not choosing a politics of left and right.

I think that, if I sat down and asked somebody, why might your country or my country disintegrate into a state of civil war, they would know the answers. I don't need to spell them out. Those answers surround us. So, I felt it would be not just patronizing, but redundant, to spell it out.

Jeffrey Brown: And that means, in this case, putting us into this position that we can recognize all these places and some of these people perhaps, then letting us figure out what's going on?

Alex Garland: Exactly, yes, exactly, which, to me, is related to the other subject matter in the film, which is to do with the press.

In a way, it is trying to take a certain kind of leading bias out of the film and making the film function like reporters, and then it is showing as its protagonist reporters.

Jeffrey Brown: Reporters wrestling with getting a story at all costs, with the ethics of portraying violence in the form of compelling, even beautiful imagery.

Kirsten Dunst: Once you start asking yourself those questions, you can't stop. So we don't ask. We record, so other people ask. Want to be a journalist? That's the job.

Stephen McKinley Henderson, Actor: Hey, Lee.

Kirsten Dunst: What?

Stephen McKinley Henderson: Back off.

Kirsten Dunst: What am I saying that's wrong?

Stephen McKinley Henderson: I'm not saying it's wrong. She's just shook up.

Jeffrey Brown: Issues Garland himself had to confront.

What were the key decisions in your thinking about what to show, what not to show, how much to give, how much not to sensationalize?

Alex Garland: I hope it hasn't really sensationalized anything. I would argue it has not.

Film is traditionally — for a long time has been incredibly concerned with spelling everything out for an audience, and not leaving things up to the audience, in terms of their own decision-making processes or their personal responses. I just choose to make films where I assume a certain level of interest in the audience in asking questions, thinking about the answers, posing them in the way they want to pose them, and coming to their own conclusions.

And I don't object to that. I encourage it. I like it.

Jeffrey Brown: Garland is nothing if not ambitious in the subjects he takes on, including artificial intelligence and what it means to be alive in 2014's "Ex Machina" and toxic masculinity in the film "Men" in 2022.

Reactions to "Civil War" have included questioning the ethics of even making a film like this that might itself further promote violence or division. Garland says he can't predict any such response, but:

Alex Garland: I do know that silencing people also leads to trouble, that there is — there's an issue to do with the freezing out of opinions in a public space and the shouting down of opinions within a public space that is its own sort of problem.

So we're not living in a perfect world where every decision could be made with exact prediction of how it will work out. What we're living in a world is where we have to think and act like adults and understand the messy, confusing state and do the best we can with it.

Actor: Are you guys aware there's like a pretty huge civil war going on all across America?

Actress: Oh, sure, but we just try to stay out.

Jeffrey Brown: So what do you hope people take away from this film?

Alex Garland: In my dream scenario, which I'm aware will probably not exist, they would see it as a kind of treatise against extremist thinking.

I hope they find it thought-provoking in a way that is interesting. They may be provoked in other ways. It might make them angry. That's part of the risk one takes. There's a complicated thing there within cinema is that films often exist really to please people. I do not want to make people angry, but I do not just want to please them.

Jeffrey Brown: Box office results, so far, at least, suggest audiences are coming to civil war on Garland's terms.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

Actor: God bless America.

Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.