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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Alex Garland answers the question: Why make a film about civil war today?

Director Alex Garland in New York on Monday, April 8, 2024. Even before his drama was released, the writer-director faced controversy over his vision of a divided America with Texas and California as allies.(Thea Traff/The New York Times)

By Christopher Kuo

One of the most haunting moments in Alex Garland’s new drama “Civil War” comes in the form of a question.

A soldier, fingering the trigger of his assault rifle, confronts a group of terrified journalists: “What kind of American are you?” he asks.

That question, and its underlying impulse to divide and demonize, is at the heart of why Garland made a much-anticipated and already much-debated film about the implosion of the United States. “Civil War,” which opened April 12, warns against the dangers of extreme partisanship, Garland said in a recent interview — the horrors that can happen when American citizens, or any other group of people, turn on themselves.

“I think civil war is just an extension of a situation,” said Garland, the 53-year-old British director behind “Ex Machina” and “Men.” “That situation is polarization and the lack of limiting forces on polarization.”

In the film, America’s divisions have erupted into chaos. Fleets of helicopters patrol the skies and explosions rock major cities as the secessionist Western Forces, including those from Texas and California, advance on the president, a three-term authoritarian who has disbanded the FBI and launched airstrikes on fellow Americans.

If polarization is one of the poisons causing this outbreak, Garland sees the work of a free, independent press as one of the antidotes. His film envisions the Fourth Estate as a check on extremism and authoritarianism.

“Something terrible, it seems to me, has been happening to the press,” said Garland, whose father was a political cartoonist and who grew up chatting with journalists at the dinner table. “I wanted to put the press as the heroes,” he added.

The heroes, in this case, include grizzled war photographer Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst); an aspiring photojournalist, Jessie Cullen (Cailee Spaeny); as well as journalists played by Wagner Moura and Stephen McKinley Henderson. As they travel to Washington, D.C., to interview the president, the film shows war-torn America through their camera lenses.

At first, Jessie recoils at the atrocities she sees, but under Lee’s tutelage, she evolves into the kind of journalist Garland admires: someone who can record death and destruction without interfering or casting judgment. But is her transformation courageous or dehumanizing? How many monstrosities can one passively observe without also becoming a monster?

Cerebral and philosophical, hyper-attuned to nuance, Garland seems to relish these complexities. An interview with him, in a room in A24’s New York office, at times felt like a crash course in political science, covering his fears about the rise of fascism to explanations for the decline of liberal democracy — and his reasons for having Texas and California join forces in the film. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: Take me back to the time you were writing this film in 2020. What inspired this film?

A: If you think back to 2020, the discourse was almost identical to today. The strange thing is that so little has changed. Where there is change, some of the change is for the worse. Overall I’d say this film is about checks and balances: polarization, division, the way populist politics leads toward extremism, where extremism itself will end up and where the press is in all of that. One of the things that really preoccupied me four years ago was it was perfectly obvious there were really good journalists doing good work. But the thing that interested me, and this has been happening for a while, is how little traction they had. If it’s a film about checks and balances, one of the biggest checks and balances you have on government is the press. But the press needs to be trusted for that to work. They’ve been undermined and demonized partly by external forces and internal forces.

Q: You’re saying the press is meant to be a check on polarization?

A: It’s not meant to be, it is. That is its function. When I say external forces and internal forces undermining journalism, an external force might be the context of social media, all these other voices and the power these voices have. You could also have an external force in the form of an influential politician undermining media. But an internal force could be if large and important news organizations deliberately lean toward bias. And you start preaching to a choir, because that’s what the choir wants to hear. Then all of the surrounding choirs cease to trust.

Q: So this film could be seen as a defense of objectivity in journalism?

A: The film is presenting old-fashioned reporters, as opposed to extremely biased journalists who are essentially producing propaganda. They’re old-fashioned reporters, and the film tries itself to function like those reporters. One of the journalists is very young, but they’re using a 35-millimeter camera, which is the means of photojournalism from an era where the societal function of media was more fully understood and embraced.

I said to someone who works in the film industry, “I want to make a film about journalists where journalists are the heroes.” They said, “Don’t do that, everyone hates journalists.” That has a really deep problem contained within it. Saying you hate journalists is like saying you hate doctors. You need doctors. It’s not really a question of you like or don’t like journalists, you need them, because they are the check and balance on government.

Q: Why did you put Texas and California together in an alliance?

A: Two reasons. One is just to avoid a quick lazy read. Just take that off the table, you can’t have it. But there’s a bigger reason. I’m provoking the question, why are they together? Is it because I’m British and I’m so stupid I don’t realize they’re in two politically different spaces? I do realize their differences. But what would be so important as a threat that the polarized politics between Texas and California was suddenly seen as less important than the threat?

As soon as the trailer released, people said there are no terms under which these two states could join. Which in itself is a very clear representation of the insanity of polarized politics. There are many things Texas and California do agree on. I could draw lines between all these dots, but I don’t do that. The film is attempting to act like old-fashioned reporters, to not be biased. If you report on an assassination, are you refusing to make judgment on the assassination? No, you’re just reporting.

Q: Why did you deliberately leave out so many details about the civil war in the film, about the politics of the two sides, and why is this not explicitly a conflict between liberal and conservatives?

A: Then it would be an issue that only related to this country, but it’s not. You can see it right now playing out in Israel. You can see it happening in Asia, in South America, Europe; you can see it in my own country. Now, if one is talking about polarization, extremism, the Fourth Estate, all of those things, would it be wise to make a Republican-Democrat conversation that immediately shuts down the other half? Would it even be true? It can’t be entirely true, because otherwise it wouldn’t apply to all these other countries. Now, I understand why people want it to be like that for exactly the reason that some of these news organizations have been so successful, which is that if you preach to the choir, the choir digs it.

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