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Can Alex Garland’s Civil War somehow be apolitical?

A bipartisan California-Texas alliance is certainly out there

Nick Offerman as the president in Civil War Image: A24
Clayton Ashley , senior video editor, has been producing and editing videos for Polygon since 2016. He is the lead producer of the tabletop gaming series Overboard.

Ex Machina director Alex Garland looks like he will try to do the impossible when his new film Civil War hits theaters in 2024: depict a second civil war in the United States without directly engaging with the politics of why that war is taking place. It’s not hard to see why Garland might want to avoid thorny connections between the movie and the very real politicians and political groups openly calling for secession and open conflict in the United States. Maybe he believes there’s enough value in the arresting visuals of a modern America under siege.

That said, it’s still audacious to try to remove the politics from even a fictional civil war, a fight typically born out of a political disagreement that can’t be resolved by any other means besides open conflict. Whatever disagreement is at the heart of the conflict, which the first trailer carefully avoids pinning down, puts California and Texas in the same boat, which sounds unthinkable at the present moment. And for that reason, a map graphic created based on the trailer has obviously gone viral.

It’s not that I’m not open to a movie depicting a bipartisan internecine war in the United States — I just want to know how we got there. Wars start for material reasons, which is why, not to be pedantic, they’re typically political.

Yes, we’ve seen attempts to abstract politics in fictional wars, by fans and creatives alike. Often the politics of fantasy and science fiction warfare are more metaphorical or allegorical. Sometimes war movies focus on the intimate, interpersonal effects that wars have on people with the politics staying more abstract. Sometimes there’s a Godzilla.

A tweet reads “Don’t make Star Wars political” which the official Star Wars account replies: “1. Queer characters existing isn’t political. 2. Star WARS is literally in our name”

But Garland’s movie is called Civil War, and it has nation-spanning scope. It has Nick Offerman as the president making speeches and the Lincoln Memorial getting blown up. It’s not an abstract or philosophical question to ask in a country whose most bloody conflict was its first civil war, which was fought over a very hotly contested human rights issue. Apologies, I want to know why that country would devolve into civil war for a second time! Especially when today political parties are openly calling into question how we teach that very history.

It’s a saving grace that Twitter won’t really be around to supercharge the discourse for this movie, which, whether it delivers answers or not, will stir up inane conversations about which state has more military bases. We’ve had more than enough armchair strategists making ridiculous assumptions about how a “red state-blue state” conflict would actually play out. Leaving open the big question of motivation does not feel like a bold gesture.

It’s not as if we’re lacking for possibilities here. I’m not even talking about next year’s election. What about climate change turning the central United States into a desert, forcing east and west into a resource war, a la The Water Knife? Or a president openly refusing to assist states from the opposite political party after a massive ecological disaster, fracturing the country on political lines? Or a simmering religious and legal conflict over reproductive rights breaking out into open conflict?

Civil War, at least as presented in the trailer, seems to focus on how little people in the United States seem to care about the conflicts its empire perpetuates around the world… until it comes home. Garland wouldn’t be the first to make that point: other films and graphic novels certainly have, though through engaging directly with the politics of the day, not hiding from them. This feels especially important when making a movie that draws on the wounds of the American civil war, wounds the country has still not fully healed from. (For a shocking but fascinating deep dive on that topic, check out this Spike Lee-produced mockumentary Confederate States of America)

In our current, fragile state, we might need something more daring than an apolitical action movie about a new civil war. I am willing to see where Garland takes us, but right now I have a map — and it’s sending me spiraling.

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