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Alex Garland’s ‘Civil War’ Plays Both Sides - Best News

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Alex Garland’s ‘Civil War’ Plays Both Sides

When director Alex Garland sat down in 2020 to write his new movie, Civil War, he was clearly worried about the polarization of American society. The Covid-19 pandemic was just beginning to take hold, and former US president Donald Trump was still in the White House. It was a much different country from the one in which Garland is releasing his biggest film to date.

The divisions Garland worried about have only increased, driven by rampant conspiratorial thinking around Covid and vaccines, Trump’s baseless stolen-election conspiracies, a growing right-wing media empire spewing disinformation, and, of course, the attack on the US Capitol.

Rather than making a film calling out these threats and divisions head on, Garland instead created something much more akin to a far-right fantasy recruiting tool. In Civil War, Garland’s apocalyptic US features a country ostensibly stripped of partisan labels, where both the left and right become intolerant of each other and turn deadly.

Nick Offerman’s “three-term” president and the troops loyal to him are under attack from the Western Forces, a coalition of militias from California and Texas. The ensuing war has left America strewn with burnt-out cars, smoldering buildings, and homeless refugees. Amidst this chaos, Garland has placed a group of journalists—veteran war photographer Lee (Kirsten Dunst), Reuters correspondent Joel (Wagner Moura), fledgling photographer Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), and elderly reporter Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson)—to highlight the vital importance of journalism to a functioning democracy. Mostly, though, they just demonstrate how little impact mainstream journalism has on a polarized world where someone’s worldview is reinforced by their own partisan media.

Garland’s argument that both sides are at fault, though, is disingenuous to the reality of the United States, both in 2020 when Garland wrote the script and even more so now, just months out from potentially the most consequential election in American history.

There is only one side calling for a “civil war.” There is only one side stoking hatred by spreading conspiracy theories about the Great Replacement. There is only one side boosting baseless and widely debunked theories that elections are rigged. There is only one side whose presidential candidate is promising a “bloodbath” if he loses the election.

For all its visual artistry—and there is plenty of that in this film—Garland has created a confused narrative that attempts to portray all sides as evil, with only the journalists at the center the real arbiters of truth. But in an age where extremists are ready and primed to decode and interpret any piece of media for their own ends, what Garland has really done is create a film in which these groups can see themselves on screen as the good guys.

Garland is well known for creating open-ended films that allow audiences to interpret the meaning in whatever way they want. Such as the future of the universe in 2018’s Annihilation, or the idea of gender with the 2022 horror flick Men. Nearly a decade ago, in Ex Machina, Garland foreshadowed the debate raging today about whether artificial intelligence is a net positive for society or a dangerous threat to mankind.

In each of those cases, the stakes were low. The technology used to create Alicia Vikander’s AI robot Ava in Ex Machina is so far from being a reality—even today—that it's not something audiences need to worry about in the near future. And the idea of people giving birth to themselves, as happened at the end of Men, is equally far-fetched.

Late last year, when Civil War’s first trailer landed online, people immediately dismissed the notion that it could portray a potential future conflict simply because militias from Texas and California were fighting side by side. At the same time, it looked plausible enough that conspiracy theorists labeled it “predictive programming,” the government manipulating the media to prepare the public for future events. (Netflix’s Leave the World Behind, produced by Barack and Michelle Obama, created similar murmurs.) It might be offering different predictions than conspiracists imagined, but Civil War’s allusions to actual American life make it far from ambiguous.

Obviously, there is Offerman’s fascistic president who is serving a third term and has disbanded the FBI—two things similar to ideas Trump has wondered aloud about in the past. Journalists are also referred to as enemies of the state—a favorite Trump refrain—who will be shot on sight when they enter Washington, DC.

Then there’s the brief mention of the “antifa massacre” which may have been the incident that triggered this brutal war. The reference to the real world movement is left vague, so audiences don’t know if members of antifa were massacred or if they did the massacring.

He’s even used footage from Andy Ngo, according to the film’s credits. Ngo, for those who are unaware, is a far-right troll who spreads antifa conspiracy theories and has been accused of publishing selectively edited videos of antifa protests to make the left-wing activist group look violent.

But the most troubling real-world reference in the film was the militia dressed in what appears to be the uniform of the Boogaloo Bois.

The Boogaloo movement is a loosely organized set of anti-government militias that began life in online message boards over a decade ago, before moving offline in recent years. Members are easily recognized when they appear at public events—such as the storming of the Capitol on January 6—by the colorful Hawaiian shirts they wear to identify themselves.

The Boogaloo movement is made up of white supremacists and neo-Nazis, and it has one very specific goal: to incite a second American Civil War.

Garland and A24, one of the film’s distributors, declined to give WIRED an interview to discuss these topics and didn’t respond to emailed questions, so it’s hard to say how influenced Garland was by the Boogaloo movement when writing the screenplay. But given that an NBC report in February 2020, around the time when Garland was sitting down to write the script, was among the first major reports in the mainstream media about the group, it seems certain they influenced the narrative that plays out on screen.

Whether or not the inclusion of this real-world reference was intentional, the impact is likely going to be the same.

“A lot of these people, particularly right-wing, radicalized, young white men, they are absolutely steeped in media, and if you spend any time in these circles online, all of their references are either misunderstood art, such as the Matrix or Fight Club, or it's ambiguous art that they are able to co-opt for their own purposes,” says political analyst Jared Yates Sexton.

Sexton’s book, The Midnight Kingdom: A History of Power, Paranoia, and the Coming Crisis, details how modern America is built on white supremacist rhetoric, Christian nationalism, and conspiracy theories that are now threatening to plunge the country into an authoritarian nightmare like the one playing out in Civil War. “I see this as absolutely being very ripe for the right to embrace it and celebrate it and turn it into their own sort of vision board for lack of a better term,” he says.

He hasn’t seen the film yet, but has reviewed Garland’s comments about making Civil War and believes that the disconnect between reality and the director’s vision may come from how Garland views the rift dividing the US right now.

When it premiered at SXSW earlier this year, Garland was quoted saying that “left and right, just to be clear about it, are ideological arguments about how to run a state. That’s all they are. They are not a right or wrong, in terms of good and bad.” This led to a lot of criticism, but in an interview published this week in Dazed, Garland attempted to clarify what he meant.

“I would just say to people: Before you start getting angry, let’s figure out if our definitions of left and right are the same thing,” Garland said. “Low taxation to stimulate economic growth, or high taxation to help disadvantaged people via educational welfare. That’s what I mean by left-wing and right-wing.”

To Sexton, this narrowly defined view of the battle between the left and right may be technically accurate but is not based in reality.

“American and global understanding of right-versus-left has just become a Rorschach test,” Sexton says, adding that Garland’s definition is not the widely held understanding of those terms. “Right,” he says, involves “rampant white supremacist, patriarchal fascistic power,” while “left” is defined as “diversity and inclusion and actual history and science.” Garland, he believes, “has a libertarian viewpoint that is likely to be co-opted by the right wing in times of political crisis.”

Garland has repeatedly said that the thing he wants audiences to take away from this film is “aversion,” but he has not defined exactly what audiences should feel an aversion to.

For many, the visceral action with brutal but realistic violence and scenes of tanks rolling into Washington, DC, will inspire an aversion to war, as it should. But to a small band of extremists who have been fantasizing about another civil war for years, the film’s garbled politics and confused narrative may create not aversion but inspiration.

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