Reviewed by Roger Marheine

May 2, 2024

 

“But when we have to [deal] with products of contemporary culture, the concrete [political] situation becomes the object of repression to the degree that we wish to ignore the socio-economic situation in which we are really involved.”  (Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Form, p. 348).

“There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”  (Warren Buffett)

“It’s to do with the fact that when things get extreme, the reasons why things got extreme no longer become relevant….So it doesn’t actually matter, as it were, in this context, what side they’re fighting for or what the other person’s fighting for.”   (Alex Garland)

 

British filmmaker Alex Garland’s Civil War, now playing in wide distribution, reached huge audiences as the nation’s top grossing film in its first two weeks. Garland and the film’s actors have been interviewed extensively as part of the film’s promotion. Its mass appeal has sparked much discussion about the state of current American politics, but not about current American economics.

Every so often a film emerges with extensive ideological value to maintaining ruling class hegemony.  Frederic Jameson’s insight (above) applies to Garland’s film. Civil War is a reactionary artistic rendering of a cultural or political “crisis”  that distorts and obstructs any genuine understanding  of the real “socio-economic situation.” Garland concedes he has no interest in the cause of political turmoil, but only a concern for “extremism.”  Civil War in effect calls for more law and order despite the fact that crushing economic deprivation permeates the American working class.

Aesthetically, Civil War is a spook show; it provokes and startles with war and gore.  Shocking cruelty, at times casually rendered, leaves viewers on edge.   Garland knows how to create a harrowing scene. His extensive directorial resume does feature some films with astute political commentary. (1)  Still, Garland is an imagist who constructs the exotic shot or mind boggling scene, but ideologically he misses the mark much of the time.

Civil War might have been successful as a dystopian reflection, a cautionary tale of our increasingly hostile class divisions. It might have been a Brechtian piece of “Epic Theater” in which the artwork provokes us to take concrete action.  Unfortunately, neither is the case.  Garland’s muddle of lurid scenes is calculated to astound the viewer, but they serve only to encourage a nihilistic rejection of human values and deny any hope for a communal future.                                                            

The plot entails four journalists who travel from New York City over a treacherous dystopian political terrain to reach Washington D.C. They experience a series of grossly violent episodes, and ultimately, they witness the murder of a corrupt American president.   Garland teases the viewer with fascist references where all law is subjugated to barbarism.  The president, perhaps a Trump figure, (actor Nick Offerman has a vague resemblance to Trump and wears a red tie), has illegally declared himself for a third term.  He is compared by one journalist to the Romanian Nicolae Ceaușescu,  Libya’s Muammar al-Gaddafi, and Italy’s Mussolini.

Garland’s four primary actors  are compelling in their portrayal as journalists traveling through the dystopian American landscape.  The excellent Kirsten Dunst (Lee) mesmerizes as a world-weary photojournalist whose career has flourished from her coverage of war time massacres.  Cailee Spaeny (Jessie) succeeds as the novice whose initial fears transform into a ghastly single-mindedness. Stephen McKinley Henderson (Sammy), as an ageing New York Times journalist, quietly reflects on the ending of an era.  Brazilian actor, Wagner Mora (Joel), portrays a swash buckling figure who carries a blind ambition, befitting a career journalist who profits from documenting tragedies of others.

In interviews, both Garland and Dunst have claimed the film champions heroic journalists.  Initially the characters are portrayed as honest, if ambitious, photographers and writers whom the viewer sides with and trusts. We at first see them as carrying out necessary but dangerous tasks, as they are victimized by the horror that they observe and document.

In one interview, Garland stated he respects journalists who have been “demonized and villainized,” a reference to “fake news” advocates in the MAGA camp. Dunst, also in an interview, declared the film to be a “love letter to journalists.”

Most crucially, Dunst’s character, Lee, asserts what seems to be Garland’s primary theme about journalism and even his film, Civil War: “We don’t ask questions. We record things so other people can ask questions.”

This view maintains that journalists objectively document events–a very naïve platitude. What’s recorded, how anything is recorded, and what’s not recorded, are all subjective journalistic choices.    Accordingly, Garland’s film presents a series of  “objective” images to make up a disturbing catalogue of abuses.  His job is done, or so he seems to claim, and we are left to analyze and reflect.

Garland is unable or unwilling to address such journalistic atrocities currently encumbering us. All we need to do is reflect upon the horrific prejudices  of mainstream media in its coverage of the Zionist genocide against Palestinians, the disingenuous “Cold War” rhetoric of Ukraine’s battle with Russia, or the absurd claims that Taiwan requires U.S. protection against mainland China.

A more astute and honest film might have pitted truthful journalists against major neo-liberal media bias.  Garland’s simplistic narrowing of his focus on a few journalists fails to contextualize modern media’s biased reporting.

Despite his claims to support journalists, Garland shows the unseemly side of journalism—the “if it bleeds, it leads” side. Profits and careers are made off the suffering of others.

Garland’s attempt at ideological neutrality is exposed as disingenuous.  His message is hopelessly contradictory.   All violence is bad supposedly, especially if perpetrated by the masses, and it should be stopped; however, depictions of violence do sell, and sell well.  Then again military violence is necessary to overthrow the corrupt president.  It’s a muddle.

We learn that Dunst’s character made her reputation as a young photographer with a photo of “the Antifa massacre.”  It became a monetized commodity that established her career.  Surprisingly,  there is no further political clarification.  Whether the Antifas (Anti-Fascists) committed the massacre or were themselves massacred is of no importance to Garland.

Jessie, the novice photographer, stages a photo of a rural thug standing with his gun between two tortured victims.  In numerous scenes, the photos are shot only of dead bodies and violent confrontations. These are the photos that will sell.

Upon the death of New York Times reporter Sammy, her friend and colleague, Lee decides not to photograph his dead body, perhaps as a sign of respect, or perhaps because it wouldn’t be of commercial value.

In the film’s final scene, Lee is killed trying to protect Jessie, but as Lee’s body falls, Jessie ignores her.  Instead, her eyes light up at the chance to photograph the execution of the president; she does not look back or address the fallen Lee who’s been her mentor and protector for the whole film.  It’s a very cynical moment.

Jessie rushes to photograph the subsequent assassination of the president. Even more cynically, Joel seeks a quote from the soon to be assassinated president.  The president pleads “Please don’t let them kill me.”  Joel looks down at him, and declares “That’ll do.”  The president is then killed. The final shots show soldiers from the mysterious “Western Forces” hovering gleefully over their quarry, the dead president. It is Jessie’s photo that will launch her career.

Secondary Characters:  Elitist Stereotypes and Class Bias

Garland’s depiction of the working class characters is trite and offensive. They are stereotypical figures akin to Hilary Clinton’s “deplorables.” Much of the film is set in rural America with mostly white characters.

Some are portrayed as torturing brutes.  In one scene, addressed above, a rural torturer poses for a photo between two half dead victims hanging by their arms; he declares that he’s not sure how much more fun they’ll have with the victims before they’re killed.

Or, they are mindless sheep. Several references are made to Americans living in Missouri and Colorado, who pretend there’s nothing going on that is of their concern.  Morally disengaged, they lived blissfully free of any knowledge or regard for the atrocities around them.

Or, they are ignorant combatants. In one scene, two soldier-snipers are firing at an enemy they know nothing about.  Might they be a metaphor for American soldiers fighting some vague enemy in Iraq or Afghanistan?  Is this a symbol of the widespread anger of the working class searching for the source of their suffering?  Those poignant themes remain unexplored as Garland is content to dwell on ignorance.

In the film’s single most riveting scene, a uniformed white soldier, standing over a pit of dead bodies, pours lime over the corpses.  This deranged and terrorizing  character  interrogates the journalists, asking, “What kind of American are you?”  Symbolically wearing rose-colored glasses and displaying a vicious nativism, he casually executes two Asian journalists. (2)  He represents Garland’s notion of the unhinged white working class.

What is also striking is the film’s almost complete lack of urban images, except decontextualized violence.   We are told that New York has fallen, but fallen to whom?   Thus, America’s huge, ethnically diverse, urban populations are largely ignored by Garland.

However, the film’s very few images of Black urban rebels are strikingly racist. In the first scenes, we see glimpses of Lee’s prior experience.  There’s a depiction of what South Africans called “necklacing,”—the execution of a Black man, an Apartheid collaborator, by placing him in a rubber tire and setting it ablaze.  Without clarification or contextual elaboration, these scenes merely impart shock value and inflame racist horror.

We are told the F.B.I. has been disbanded.  For progressives that would be a good thing!  The logical conclusion we can draw from Garland’s film is that without national law enforcement, we have chaos.  The “deplorables” will take over.

Garland fails to grasp or refuses to acknowledge that the real civil war in the U.S. is a class war. Gross inequality stifles the mass of humanity, factories close, evictions accelerate, food insecurity plagues millions, urban police declare war on men of color, prisons burst with overcrowding, and billions are spent on genocidal wars to prop up the empire. Garland has no interest in these issues.

Nor does he have any interest in working class resistance against ruling class policy and practice. Unions are organizing and striking, huge protests have emerged against killer cops, massive demonstrations oppose U.S. imperialist policy that backs genocidal regimes.  Garland has no grasp of genuine worker resistance; rather he clings to a myopic focus on indiscriminate sadism.

Civil War presents snapshots of contradictory scenes and generates an incoherent statement. It depicts senseless and inexplicable violence and champions conceptual ambiguity, in which ultimately a profound pessimism wins out. It reflects the crisis of liberal elites who fear Trump more than they care about the massive attacks on the working class.  Garland’s film provokes a dangerous cynicism and exemplifies the lack of ideological commitment to a just world without class inequality.

 

ENDNOTES:

  1. To get a sense of Garland’ s mixed messages, consider his most recent films. His haunting Never Let Me Go (2010) portrays cloned  “human” characters who are cultivated as  body parts which are harvested when their hosts need them.  The cloned figures attempt to persuade their masters that they are “real” humans,  but their masters refuse to listen to reason.  Clearly, we see that they must revolt to overcome their circumstances.   In Ex Machina (2014) sexually exploited AI women are created to please their inventive owner.  The AI women develop consciousness and communicate with each other to foment their revolt against the master. Both films insist that the exploited must revolt against their exploiters.   Garland’s Annihilation (2018) examines a genetic space, called “the shimmer,”  in which genetic aberrations dominate, humans become transformed into plants, and aggressive mutations threaten any human who attempts to intervene. Annihilation succeeds admirably as a cautionary tale against irresponsible genetic engineering.  Then there is Garland’s  Dredd  (2012) which portrays a fascist police force that fulfills roles of judge, jury and executioner, quite frankly a direct reflection of current urban police in the U.S.  His Men (2022) shoves psychologically menacing patriarchal figures at the viewer in an array of morbid confrontations with a grieving woman.
  1. I am indebted to Professor Carol Wise, of the Political Science Faculty at the University of Southern California who pointed out the glasses were rose-colored. I had viewed them as red, but rose-colored makes symbolic sense, rendering the white soldier as naively obsessed with a racist image of “real America.”

 

Roger Marheine taught English at Pasadena City College and is now retired. His interests include war culture and resistance literature.