Civil War’s warning about the US political divide

Civil War seems not only to speak to such deep societal dangers, but also to anticipate them, as Garland’s films often do. His screenplay for Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) imagined a global plague years before Covid. That infection turned people into zombies, but still, it was a warning. A decade ago in the sleek Ex Machina, which he wrote and directed, he considered the thin line between artificial intelligence and sentient beings, taking a swipe at tech billionaires along the way.

His most perfectly realised film, Ex Machina holds up beautifully today. Garland has dismissed the idea that he is especially prescient, though, and said he is merely observing the world. Now he is observing polarisation, and the world seems ready to prove his point. Civil War itself began drawing sharply divided political reactions before anyone in the public had viewed it, mirroring the kind of division Garland depicts so explosively. The conversation around the film is almost as revealing as what is on screen.  

What the reaction to the film shows

One early article relied on a Reddit group, which the piece characterised as “from the left side of the political spectrum”, grumbling that the yet-unseen film might incite violence. An even earlier piece reported how the film had inspired conspiracy theories from the right, alleging that it reflected a real-life plan by those in power to create disorder. The hair-on-fire anticipation echoes early fears about The Joker (2019), which never inspired the copycat violence predicted by the advance hand-wringing. But this polarised reaction indicates that Garland’s timely film has really hit a nerve.  

After the film premiered at SXSW in March, he and the cast started doing interviews, emphasising its non-political stance, but not always clearing things up. Garland attempted to explain the baffling alliance between conservative-leaning Texas and liberal-leaning California, which is never addressed in the film. He told The Hollywood Reporter that the partnership says, “Two sides that have a different political position have said, ‘Our political differences are less important than this’ [resisting a fascist president].” After giving a similar answer to the Financial Times he added, “To me that is such a small, logical step, but it’s interesting that people find it so problematic.”

At best, though, the concept of that alliance is wildly idealistic, and idealistic is not how this film lands. Near-realism is its strength, and showing such an unlikely collaboration doesn’t serve that. Some recent polls suggest that Americans are united in their beliefs in the core values of democracy. However a study for the Carnegie Endowment goes beyond that. “Even though Americans are not as ideologically polarised as they believe themselves to be, they are emotionally polarised (known as affective polarisation). In other words, they do not like members of the other party.” In this notable instance, Garland doesn’t help his own case by sidestepping how red v blue animosity seems to be at the root of the US divide.

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