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Who’s Fighting and Why in ‘Civil War’? Ask the Audience.

The central protagonist in Civil War—a dystopian tale of a near-future America at war with itself—is a veteran combat photographer for Reuters named Lee (Kirsten Dunst). The film follows Lee and a small group of other photojournalists seeking to chronicle a climactic Washington, D.C., battle in the film’s hypothetical war.

At one point, a young colleague, Jesse (Cailee Spaeny) asks Lee about what’s going on in the bloody chaos they’re capturing in photographs. Jesse is a proxy for the audience because we too are naturally curious about the “why,” “what,” and “who” questions surrounding this conflict. But Lee responds, “We don’t ask. We record so other people ask.” Here, Lee is speaking for the film’s creator, British filmmaker Alex Garland (Ex Machina).

In Civil War, Garland intentionally avoids answering questions raised by the imagery he depicts. And the questions are many: How did this civil war start? How long has it been going on? Are any other nations involved? What political issue would cause Texas and California to forge a military alliance? Why is New York City a war-ravaged ghost town while other towns are seemingly untouched? Why is Canadian currency so valuable? Why do the “Western Forces” want to assassinate the “three-term” U.S. president (played by Nick Offerman)? Who is the terrifying guy in the red sunglasses (Jesse Plemons), and what does he mean when he asks, “What kind of American are you?” Perhaps most importantly, is there a morally “right” side in this conflict?

Viewers of the film—which, I’d warn, is full of R-rated language and intense violence—will no doubt have many of these questions. But Garland is doggedly insistent the only responsibility of the film, like the neutral press photographers it follows, is to show, not tell; to record, not explain.

Garland challenges the viewer to fill in the gaps: What do you think the imagery in this film means? How would you sketch a speculative history in which America gets to a place like this? Impassioned explanations will be as wildly varied as the array of hot takes spawned by any major news story.

Ultimately, it’s not Civil War’s vision of a future dystopia that makes it disturbing; it’s that the film embodies the diverging realities we’re already in. Americans are living in different microworlds, and in any given image or video mediated to us (like this film), we see different things.

Algorithms and Interpretive Chaos

Civil War is a mirror not because it reflects our current political partisanship but because it reflects a world where increasingly few of us see the same reality or share a common narrative. It’s not the film’s content that captures the zeitgeist so much as the interpretive chaos it spawns.

It’s not the film’s content that captures the zeitgeist so much as the interpretive chaos it spawns.

The movie made me think of something Jaron Lanier wrote about the algorithm-fueled fragmentation of our social media age. He called it an “epochal development” because of how it erodes capacity for empathy or shared narratives: “The version of the world you are seeing is invisible to the people who misunderstand you, and vice versa. . . . We see less than ever before of what others are seeing, so we have less opportunity to understand each other.”

Every Civil War audience member is seeing the same film, but the ideas and emotions conjured in each mind will be vastly different—formed in large part by the hyperindividualized “realities” each has been fed by algorithms.

Garland gives viewers puzzle pieces but leaves us to connect them and see what larger picture emerges. The pieces are intentionally rendered to provoke a variety of interpretations. What would cause a California-Texas alliance (Western Forces), for example, is fodder for all manner of interpretations.

Depending on a viewer’s preexisting biases, readings will run the gamut. Those prone to interpreting reality through a critical race theory lens may conclude that the film’s “war” is primarily driven by racism. “Stop the steal” sympathizers might see Civil War through the lens of January 6. Anti-fascists and libertarians, feminists and nativists, and everyone in between will find evidence to imagine an explanation of Civil War that suits their politics. Those who hate Trump might find the film’s climax cathartic. Those who hate Biden might as well. This is Garland’s point.

The film’s final images, set to the unnerving 1979 song “Dream Baby Dream” (by American band Suicide), are unsettling in what they conjure within us. More optimistic viewers might interpret the song as Garland’s collective challenge to avoid dystopia and double down on the dream of a United States of America. But I think he more likely wants each of us to ponder how the ending’s jarring imagery fits into our dreams and fantasies, driven by pent-up grievances and desires for justice and revenge. The film leaves audiences with an unsettling question: If part of you likes how this movie ends, why?

More Satisfying Justice

Still, as interesting as this “choose your own Civil War fantasy adventure” concept might be—especially as a commentary on our techno-fueled fragmentation and diverging senses of justice—it’s not exactly satisfying.

What we really desire isn’t a vague vision of justice, in which any of us can see a personal victory or declare morally “right” a triumph (as long as it’s our side winning). What we want is a specific justice for evils about which there’s consensus. We want a narrative of victory that’s good and true not just for one tribe or another but for all. Our hypersubjective, to-each-their-own-reality world is leaving us empty. We don’t want ambiguity about what the fight is for; we don’t want tribalism for the sake of tribalism (which only benefits media corporations—something hinted at in Civil War). War is brutal and the cost of liberation is great. We naturally want it to be for a morally just cause.

Our hypersubjective, to-each-their-own-reality world is leaving us empty. We don’t want ambiguity about what the fight is for; we don’t want tribalism for the sake of tribalism.

Civil War has frustrated many viewers—and more than a few critics—for its refusal to weigh in on questions of just war or the relative moral merit of one cause or another. Even if Garland’s “objective journalist” posture is understandable, it’s also understandably frustrating to audiences, who might see it as bothsidesism, thirdwayism, or neutral head-in-the-sandism.

Why do we dislike these “isms”? Because we’re wired to desire absolute truth and moral clarity. In our gut, we know there are good and bad guys, right and wrong sides, just and unjust wars. Objective reporting of reality serves a crucial purpose, but it’s not an end unto itself. We also need evaluation and interpretation that happens not according to partisan scripts (as is too often the case in today’s media landscape) but according to a higher, universal grid.

This “wiring” for moral clarity comes from God, who is the only logical basis on which words like “good,” “right,” and “just” can ever be objectively defined. Our desires for specificity and universality in these questions is a powerful proof of God’s existence, as is the emotional satisfaction we feel when we watch something clearly good prevail over something clearly evil.

In contrast to the unsatisfying ambiguity of Civil War’s violent vagaries, consider the endings of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (spoilers ahead). The former gives audiences the shared satisfaction of watching Hitler get assassinated along with a theater full of Nazis. The latter presents satisfying imagery of Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio killing the Manson family murderers before they can kill Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). We like these images of revisionist history because we like morally clear justice. It’s the same reason why the most beloved war movies tend to be the ones where the “sides” are obvious and the costly sacrifices are clearly meaningful.

Most Prescient Point

It may be unintentional, but Civil War’s most prescient point is probably that ambiguous, arbitrary, might-makes-right justice is sadly the only “justice” possible in a secular age. When a culture abandons God, it abandons the only foundation for justice.

When a culture abandons God, it abandons the only foundation for justice.

This is a depressing point, and it’s why Civil War is a pretty depressing movie. But it also highlights an opportunity for Christians because we do have a narrative of ultimate justice that isn’t dependent on human judges. We have a metanarrative that pieces together history’s puzzle and guides us through life’s chaos. We have resources to hope amid suffering, reconcile in the face of conflict, and recognize truth in a sea of opinions.

We have all these things because we’ve found them in our holy God—a wholly righteous Judge—and we should help others find them in him too.

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