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A country at war with itself


WORLD Radio - A country at war with itself

A new movie reminds Americans that no nation is immune to political violence

Kirsten Dunst in a scene from “Civil War” Associated Press/A24

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Friday, April 12th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: a film about America at war with itself.

The movie Civil War debuts in theaters today, but the film doesn’t have anything to do with the conflict between the North and South that happened in the 1860s.

EICHER: Nothing at all. This movie imagines what it would be like if contemporary America decided to tear itself apart.

Here’s arts and culture editor Collin Garbarino.

RADIO NEWS: Nineteen states have seceded… The United States Army ramps up activity… The White House issued warnings to the Western Forces as well as the Florida Alliance… The three-term president assures the uprising will be dealt with swiftly…

COLLIN GARBARINO: Let me just begin by saying that Civil War isn’t for everyone. The film’s R-rating for realistic war violence and bad language will be a turn off for many people. Other people won’t appreciate the fact that the movie poses a lot of questions, but it doesn’t really offer many answers.

SOLDIER: OK. What kind of American are you?

The film opens with America at war. The states of Texas and California have left the union to form the Western Forces, and a group of southern states have also seceded to form the Florida Alliance. They’re at war with the northeastern and midwestern states that stayed loyal to Washington, D.C., and things aren’t going well for what’s left of the United States of America.

Kirsten Dunst and Wagner Moura play Lee and Joel. They’re veteran war reporters for Reuters who hope to interview the President of the United States before Washington’s total collapse. Nick Offerman plays the president. Lee is the photographer and Joel is the writer. Before they leave for their more than 800 mile journey from New York to Washington, a young wannabe photojournalist named Jessie, played by Cailee Spaeny, convinces Lee and Joel to let her tag along.

JESSIE: Lee, I’m sorry for jamming my way into your ride. OK? I know you’re really angry about it.

Did he say it’s more than 800 miles from New York to Washington? Their circuitous route to find safe passage covers almost quadruple the distance of a straight shot from New York to D.C. Even so, their journey isn’t particularly safe.

Civil War takes an episodic approach with its narrative. As the reporters cover the miles, they encounter dangers on the road. They document the horrors of war. They stay in tent camps with refugees. And sometimes they run across people in denial.

JOEL: Are you guys aware there’s like a pretty huge civil war going on all across America.

SHOP GIRL: Oh, sure. But we just try to stay out.

Writer/Director Alex Garland doesn’t give us what we expect with this movie. He doesn’t explain how America descended into civil war, and our current political prejudices about red states and blue states don’t map onto the movie. Why are California and Texas in an alliance? Who knows? Garland doesn’t tell us. The movie will probably disappoint some viewers because it indicts neither Trumpism nor woke-ism.

Civil War isn’t really about politics at all. Rather, it’s more of a meditation on journalistic ethics. It asks why journalists brave the dangers of war, and what toll those dangers take on the psyche. Are these journalists as objective as they think they are? How objective can you be when embedded within a fighting unit that’s keeping you alive? The audience never really finds out who the good guys are in this movie, and sometimes we wonder whether the journalists care about figuring it out.

LEE: Once you start asking yourself those questions, you can’t stop. So we don’t ask. We record so other people ask. You want to be a journalist? That’s the job.

Civil War’s action scenes are loud—overwhelming the senses. But the film's political violence is unsettling because the movie is set in our homeland. We’ve grown accustomed to watching revolutions and wars from afar, thanks to real-life journalists risking their lives. This political violence makes sense to us if it’s happening in Ukraine or the Middle East. Maybe we’re angered or saddened by the tyranny and the disregard for life that those far away lands must suffer through. But we don’t really think that kind of thing could ever happen here.

Garland’s film challenges that assumption by bringing the war to American soil. Even though political violence has been part of human history for millenia, we tend to think America is too enlightened for that kind of behavior. But didn’t our Founding Fathers help normalize political revolution in the West in 1776? Didn’t we almost destroy ourselves less than 100 years later in the Civil War? Despite the blessings of a stable democratic process, Americans are still humans. And in this movie, Garland shows us the horrible things humans do to each other.

LEE: There is no version of this that isn’t a mistake. I know because I’m it.

Today, American politics are probably more polarized than any other point since the Civil War. Garland’s reluctance to endorse one side or the other will infuriate those on both the left and right. But his film isn’t about laying blame or predicting how or why political violence might come to America. He’s just reminding us that we have it in us.

I’m Collin Garbarino.

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