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Civil War provides no answers to the current political crisis

Faline Bobier

May 8, 2024
There have been a lot of superlatives for British director Alex Garland’s new movie Civil War. As the title tells us this is about a new civil war in the US, at some unspecified time in the future, but not too far from our dystopian present. The New York Times reviewer described it this way: [Garland] “presents an outwardly and largely post-ideological landscape in which debates over policies, politics and American exceptionalism have been rendered moot by war.”
But the thing I kept wondering while watching the film was, if you’re going to make a movie about the current moment in US politics and the so-called ‘polarization’ that Garland has talked about in interviews about his new film how can you possibly make sense of it without understanding where the polarization comes from?
It's not surprising that writers at The New York Times would laud the very non-specificity of Garland’s movie since this is exactly the way main-stream journalism is handling events that they dare not really explore – such as the current genocide in Gaza, being spearheaded by Netanyahu’s Zionist killing machine, aided and abetted by the US ruling class.
Civil War opens with the US president prepping for a press conference and rehearsing a vapid speech about how victory is near. This is clearly not the case when we see the opening scenes of violence in the streets, fires raging everywhere, overturned autos on highways and helicopters and fighter jets overhead.
The nature of the battlelines is kept vague. We hear about the Western Alliance (an alliance between Texas and California) which seems to be waging war on the US government and military. It is mentioned at one point that the US president is in his third term, insinuating a Donald Trump-like refusal to give up power.
There are scenes of what look to be almost refugee camps for people who have been displaced because of the conflict, run by something called Global Relief World.
The story is told through the eyes of two seasoned war journalists, trying to get from NYC to Washington to get an interview with the President. Amid the crumbling ruins one thing that remains familiar is the movie’s old-fashioned faith in journalism. Kirsten Dunst, who’s very good in her role, plays Lee, a war photographer who works for Reuters alongside her friend, a reporter, Joel (Wagner Moura).
Along the way they pick up a young aspiring photojournalist, Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) who is in awe of Lee, the seasoned and well-traveled war photographer who has been in many war-torn countries and now finds herself in the same situation in the US.
They are joined by older veteran reporter, Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), who is frail and not as able to keep up with the action. They all pile into a van and head to Washington, although the plan is to leave Sammy and Jessie behind before they reach their destination.
Garland technically pulls off the picture of a country at war with itself where violence seems ready to erupt at any moment – when the group stops at a gas station and finds two ‘hostages’ taken by the gas station owners or when they run into (literally) a group of militia who demand what kind of Americans they are – targeting two other journalists who are with them and not American-born. Actor Jesse Plemons is chilling as the hard-core racist in this scene.
However, the big problem with Civil War is that it gives us absolutely no understanding of how such a situation could happen. When Garland was asked by an interviewer why he had invented the Western Alliance (two states that might seem to be on opposite poles of the political spectrum) he replied that it’s meant to indicate that our political differences are less important than the problem of a fascist president. 
He goes on: “I would always have said I would be left wing but now mainly what I am now is a centrist – the function of the government is to not be fascist. The aspiration of centrist democracy is to not be fascist. Some people on the far right and some people on the far left will dislike the portrayal of extremism but you two are screwing it up for everyone else.”
In that sense, Civil War can make no sense of the polarization that is happening inside many countries currently because it sees the problem as one of ‘extremism’, of not hewing to the political centre.
The political centre or so-called liberal democracy is what’s gotten us to the current state of affairs in the first place.
The reason young people and others are disaffected with current US President Joe Biden is not because they are too ‘extreme’ or don’t recognize the threat posed by Donald Trump. It’s because they see Biden as supporting militarily and financially the current Israeli genocide of the Palestinian people in Gaza and they refuse to remain silent in the face of their government’s hypocrisy and murderous support for Netanyahu.
Civil War moves us not one iota ahead in terms of understanding how to fight fascism. That can only be done by creating real democratic spaces that challenge the priorities of the existing system, as thousands and thousands of students are doing now at college and university campuses across the US.
Similarly, the notion that main-stream journalism, bought and paid for by the powers that be, will tell us the truth about what’s happening in our world is an illusion. This doesn’t mean that independent journalists and others, who often risk their lives to try and get the real news out above the screaming headlines of the invested media, should not be lauded for their efforts.
But the view of journalism in Civil War, romanticized and portrayed as being ‘neutral’ and standing above the fray of the raging masses on either side, is a fantasy and a lie.
This was pointed out in reality by demonstrators calling for real and accurate reporting on the massacre of Palestinians when they occupied the offices of the New York Times in March of this year:  "Our goal is to unmask the Times and expose the paper for what it is: a tool of empire encased in a liberal veneer."
As Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote about the origins of fascism in the lead-up to Hitler taking power in Germany: fascism is a form that capitalism can take in extreme crisis. Hitler was never elected to power by a majority of ordinary German voters but was invited by the government of the capitalists to take control when they felt their system was in danger of being destroyed from below.
The political centre or so-called liberal democracy is showing its true colours in the current situation of student encampments across the US. At both UCLA and University of Chicago campuses in recent days police stood by while student encampments were physically attacked by anti-Palestinian thugs.
At the University of Chicago, a group of Zionists and Proud Boys (fascists) charged at the student encampment while Chicago police and University of Chicago police stood by for approximately 40 minutes.
It’s no mistake that the agents of the state choose the side of the fascists. Apart from the racism that is encouraged and integral in the police (the rot starts at the top), the students defending Palestine and Gaza are a threat to the so-called political centre that Garland touts in his interview as the last defenders against fascism.
Biden, although he may do some public hand-wringing about the ‘violence’ in Gaza, will defend Israel to the death because of the role it has always played as the US watchdog in the Middle East, defending US oil interests.
By wrongly identifying, or rather not identifying, the source of fascism Garland falls back on cliches about ‘extremism’ on both sides being the problem.
The real problem is those who will not stand with courageous students putting their academic careers and their safety on the line to protest the horrific genocide being carried out by Israel, with the financial and military support of western governments.
We need to ask the filmmaker ‘Which side are you on?’ because the centre will not hold.
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