Alex Garland’s “Civil War” documents a war-torn, disunited states

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Alex Garland’s “Civil War” documents a war-torn, disunited states

May 7, 2024 -

Lone soldier walking in destroyed city. By neirfy/

Lone soldier walking in destroyed city. By neirfy/

Lone soldier walking in destroyed city. By neirfy/

Civil War is unflinching and taut with violent suspense. Following four war photojournalists making their way across America to Washington DC, Alex Garland’s Civil War examines a horrifying prospect: The states no longer united and the prospect of Americans slaughtering Americans.

Photographing another US civil war

Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst) plays a cynical, seasoned war photojournalist who travels to Washington, DC, with Joel (Wagner Moura) to photograph and interview the US president, who is taking up his third term in office. Young and aspiring photojournalist Jessie Cullen (Caily Spaeny) joins the duo, along with Lee’s elder mentor Sammy (Stephen Henderson).

To reach DC, they must cross the war-torn North America, split into four factions: The “Loyalist” US, the Western Forces, the Florida Alliance, and the New People’s Army. Beyond these facts, politics aren’t discussed (to the chagrin of many reviewers). The unification of California with Texas borders on the comical. Instead, the film acts as a passive observer of the horrors of war, taking the perspective of an unbiased photojournalist (like the main characters). The movie documents their encounters with war crimes, the chaos of civil wars, and personal tragedy.

Civil War is surprisingly touching, with strong acting and decently well-developed characters. Alex Garland’s directing pulls you into the action–every gunshot feels heavy and immanent. The occasionally flat writing and cliched, melodramatic ending keep the movie from reaching its full potential. Otherwise, the film is well-executed and gripping. I highly recommend it.

Warning: There is strong language and disturbing violence throughout.

A warning message

I can sometimes forget America fought a Civil War. Historically speaking, the US has rarely faced the prospect of an attack on its mainland. Pearl Harbor and 9/11 were the most significant attacks in recent decades, but beyond that, the American Civil War was the next most recent war on American soil.

This infrequency of conflict in mainland America creates a strong cognitive dissonance and makes Civil War feel strikingly different from other war movies. The 1980s movie Red Dawn was an earlier generation’s defining film of seeing the war in the mainland US on the big screen. Both are nested in cultural phenomena: Red Dawn for the Cold War and Civil War for political polarization.

Seeing plumes of smoke pouring from downtown office buildings, mortars launched into the Lincoln Monument, and secessionist soldiers in US-like soldier uniforms fighting the Secret Service was surreal and deeply unsettling. And that reality is not unthinkable.

Lee Smith remarks in the movie that she had hoped her wartime photojournalism in foreign countries would send a warning back to the US. “But,” she says, “here we are.”

To me, that’s Civil War: a warning from one possible (if unlikely) future.

The US is not invincible

For most, being a Christian in America means enjoying freedom and prosperity. The US is generally founded on Judeo-Christian principles and ethics. So, for some, it’s tempting to think that the US is some kind of extended arm of God–and it is, but only in the sense that Nero’s Rome was in the first century A.D. Here, US Christians must distinguish between patriotism and Christian Nationalism. The former is permissible (but not necessary) for Christians; the latter is strictly not permissible.

Because we haven’t seen much conflict on the US mainland, and because we may be tempted to conflate Christ’s power with the US’s power, we may think of the US as invincible. Watching Civil War is an exercise in visualizing the US’s downfall, with all of war’s inhuman tragedy.

Here is a stark biblical fact: The US will not be the center of the reunification of Heaven and Earth. If any physical place on Earth is the epicenter of the coming redemption of creation and final judgment, it will be Jerusalem. All empires die out, including the US. Americans are not God’s chosen people, and the US is not his kingdom. Christians are; the universal church is.

So, let’s not put our hope in the United States, but the united church under Christ.

“Live peaceably with all”

Beyond these reflections, how could Civil War inspire and galvanize Christians? Like all good war movies, it helps prevent us from glorifying violence. Some US Americans have an attitude of “come and take it” or “just try to infringe on our rights–watch what happens.” I’m not a pacifist, but let’s not even consider glorifying war.

Especially for Christians in the polarized US, it means we must take these words to heart: “Blessed are the peacemakers, that they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9).

Paul writes, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:18–21).

Draw on the Spirit’s empowerment toward empathy, compassion, reasonableness, and peace that promotes justice and holds back war. Run to the conflict, engage with the culture, and bring love, peace, clarity, truth, and humility. Christians have a unique calling in the US not to further polarize, as we have often been seen doing, but instead to bring peace to an unsettled and fractured country.

Perhaps that is the best way to ensure that Civil War never becomes a reality.

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