Alex Garland has a 2-part agenda for Civil War

Alex Garland keeps getting asked the same question about his new movie, Civil War. It’s an obvious question. Garland, known best for Ex Machina, Annihilation, and Men, wrote and directed a movie set in near-future America, centering on a civil war that’s fractured the United States — and yet he reveals very little about how that war came about, or what the warring sides represent. Instead, he tells an almost clinically procedural action story about photojournalists crossing the country to cover that war, without ever digging into the details. Why make a seemingly apolitical movie about an American civil war in an era where so many pundits are worried that we’re on the brink of real civil war?

Garland disagrees with the basis of the question. “I cannot see how it’s abstract,” he told Polygon in an interview ahead of the film’s release. “[In Civil War] there is a fascist president who has dismantled the Constitution sufficiently to be able to stay for three terms, has removed one of the legal institutions that could threaten his position doing that, and is causing violence, attacking his own citizens. It might be abstract, possibly, on first blush — but to me, that does not stand up to any inspection at all, in terms of the actual content within the film.”

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That description sounds a lot more direct than the movie actually feels, though. The details above are all things viewers will only pick up from brief, scattered lines of dialogue. As Garland says, the specifics “largely come in by inference,” rather than being major focal points of the movie.

Instead, the film focuses on the world-weariness of veteran photojournalist Lee Miller (Kirsten Dunst) and her writing partner Joel (Wagner Moura) as they travel across the U.S. to Washington, D.C., to interview the embattled president (Nick Offerman). Coming along for the ride: up-and-coming cub photojournalist Jessie (Priscilla star Cailee Spaeny). The film focuses on their emotional responses to the things they see on the trip — Lee’s growing trauma, Joel’s thrillseeker bravura, Jessie’s naive excitement. But the characters never talk about politics, or the lines that have been drawn across America.

And that’s entirely deliberate, Garland says, because the movie is meant to be as politically objective as he could make it. “The kind of journalism we need most — reporting, which used to be the dominant form of journalism — had a deliberate removal of a certain kind of bias,” he told us. “If you have a news organization which has a strong bias, it is only likely to be trusted by the choir to which it’s preaching, and it will be distrusted by the others. So that was something journalists used to actively, deliberately, consciously try to avoid. […] And then the film attempts to function like those journalists. So this is a throwback to an old form of journalism, being told in the manner of that journalism.”

Photojournalist Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) sits with her camera against an exterior wall spattered with pastel slashes of paint as gun-wielding soldiers march by, leading two other soldiers with bags over their heads in Alex Garland’s Civil War Photo: Murray Close/A24

Reading between the lines, it seems clear enough that Garland didn’t want to alienate any potential viewers by framing the action in Civil War around the conflict itself, rather than the fallout of that conflict. And there are a lot of lines to read between in his movie; Garland reiterated that he uses movies to start conversations, not to dictate responses. But that doesn’t mean he thinks the movie is vague or hesitant about condemning fascism, and warning about where America might be headed politically.

“The question is, is it flagged in the way that cinema typically flags these things?” he asks. “I would accept that it isn’t.”

The problem, then, may be less with how Civil War presents its central conflict, and more around the current nature of American political conversation, where every possible individual human choice is now a political one, and those choices have been polarized into just two sides. It isn’t surprising that viewers walking into an American movie called Civil War in 2024 would expect an edgier, angrier, more direct movie about the country’s division lines. But that isn’t what Garland was primarily aiming for.

“This often happens when I work on a film,” Garland says. “There’s something that it really looks like it’s about — so I think with Ex Machina, you could say it really looks like it’s about Turing tests. But it’s not really about Turing tests. They’re there, and that’s the engine, but that’s not really the agenda of the film.”

War correspondent Joel (Wagner Moura) stands in the grass by the side of a dusty road as huge military vehicles drive by in Alex Garland’s Civil War Image: A24

So what does Garland see as Civil War’s primary agenda? “It would be a list of things,” he says. “One very simple one that would maybe just work on an unconscious level is making journalists heroes. When I said I was going to do this, a friend of mine in the film industry said, ‘Don’t do that, everybody hates journalists.’ And it really stung me. I see journalists as a necessity. Saying ‘Everybody hates journalists’ to me is exactly like saying ‘Everybody hates doctors.’ You can’t hate doctors, you’re screwed without doctors. That’s just a crazy position to maintain!”

Garland blames the rise of anti-journalist sentiment on “politicians deliberately undermining the institutions of journalism,” as well as on biased media outlets undermining the idea of news journalism — both problems in and of themselves, but resulting in attitudes toward journalists that he finds frightening and alarming.

“So one part of the agenda would just be a subtle [positive message about journalists],” he says. “Listen, it’s fucking picking up a grain of sand and chucking it on a big pile, but I’m going to pick up the grain of sand and chuck it on the pile, right? That’s the film. So one thing would just be to subtly reframe journalists. […] We need journalists — not as a luxury or as entertainment or a sort of vague commentary, but as an actual societal necessity.”

Part two of his agenda, though, goes back to that idea of making a movie with journalistic objectivity, in the hopes that it will leave both sides of the political spectrum with something to discuss — and something to agree on. It’s no coincidence that in Civil War, two of the separatist states, Texas and California, have allied against a president who’s actively working to dismantle democracy. While Garland is careful about how he words this, it sounds like he’s hoping that Americans can at least agree that autocracy would be ruinous for the country, and that both political parties should resist it.

Photojournalist Lee Miller (Kirsten Dunst) sits in a car and pensively looks out of the window at the small town reflected in the glass in Alex Garland’s Civil War Image: A24

“I know what my politics are,” he says. “And I know what happens when I talk about politics to someone who disagrees with me. I don’t have to finish a sentence, because they already know my argument. When it is two people shouting at each other, nothing happens. There is a kind of stasis — except it turns out, it isn’t stasis, it’s actually [us] drifting apart. Hopefully, in my dream of dreams, [Civil War] would let people start to reflect on the drifting apart, and what points of division or disagreement are actually worth dividing over — because the division may have a more serious consequence than the thing you were disagreeing about.”

But Civil War can’t openly make that point without preaching to the audience. And Garland doesn’t want to preach. While he says journalists have a specific role in society, “holding governments to account,” his movie “fits into a vaguer zone.”

“A film works in a slightly different way,” he says. “It’s not journalism, it’s fiction. So the function of a film […] would be to provoke — not in an antagonistic way, but a causal way — to provoke a thought process and exchange.”

And most specifically, he wants to get people talking about authoritarianism and autocracy in person, not online, via news outlets, or in the media. “Personally, I am less interested in the current form of public discourse, because I think it’s so problematic,” he says. “I’m much more interested in individuals. I’m focusing on that.” Individually and in person, he says, conversation can potentially be less divisive and provocative than it is on social media and in the mass media.

“That would be a very grandiose hope, but that’s my hope,” he says. “I’m not going to flag it. Because I don’t want to lecture. I just want to offer up. That’s it.”