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Inside “Civil War”, Alex Garland's provocative take on what a second American conflict could look like

The director's latest film puts Kirsten Dunst, Cailee Spaeny, Wagner Moura, and Stephen McKinley Henderson in the middle of a war zone.

<p>Murray Close/A24</p>

Murray Close/A24

Could an American Civil War happen again? Ever since the destructive clash between North and South 200 years ago, oceans have separated American homes from battlefields. But as domestic politics have become intensely polarized around seemingly intractable issues and defined by love-or-hate figures such as Donald Trump, many people on all sides have wondered openly what a second domestic conflict might look like. This spring, Alex Garland has an answer.

Civil War, Garland’s fourth film as a director — after making his name as a screenwriter of brainy genre flicks including 28 Days Later and Never Let Me Go — places viewers right at the center of an American nightmare. This vision of domestic disorder feels especially resonant after the mass protests of 2020 and insurrectionists storming the halls of Congress in 2021 — not to mention the fact that this is another election year, when political differences are particularly heightened.

“Very often, I find myself writing about something that lots of other people are also thinking and writing about,” Garland tells Entertainment Weekly. “I remember when I released Ex Machina, there were a whole bunch of A.I. movies around at the same time. And the Civil War narrative feels like a big anxiety right now. I wrote it four years ago, and between then and now I hear this particular anxiety expressed a lot in the media, from the mouths of politicians, and even from the mouths of friends. It’s just in the ether.”

<p>A24</p> 'Civil War'

A24

'Civil War'

Are American viewers ready to watch the exact thing they’ve been fearing play out in movie theaters, when A24 releases it on April 12? Perhaps it helps that the story skirts just shy of direct predictions or allegory, and plays loose with political signifiers. Standing in opposition to the fascist federal government (led by President Nick Offerman, whose character is never given a name, much less a political party) are the “Western Forces” of Texas and California — two states that often serve as stand-ins for “conservatism” and “liberalism” in American politics and are hard to imagine being on the same side in the real world.

Charlottesville, Va., is called out as an important battlefield, a seeming callback to the city's deadly 2017 clash between white supremacists and counter-protesters. But references to an “Antifa massacre” don’t explain whether the killings were committed by or upon left-wing militants. In one scene, soldiers are seen with dyed hair and tattoos (contemporary trademarks of progressive young people), but just a few minutes later, a different soldier in a similar uniform (played by Jesse Plemons) commits horrific acts. The president is criticized for authorizing airstrikes on American citizens, reminiscent of when a policy enacted by former President Barack Obama resulted in a 2011 drone strike that killed a teenage U.S. citizen in Yemen.

Speaking of, is President Offerman supposed to be an extrapolation of the libertarian Ron Swanson, or the Elon Musk-type tech mogul he played in Garland’s 2020 Hulu/FX miniseries Devs, or the actor’s own real-life liberal persona? The point of that casting, Garland says, is precisely that “you can’t quite pin him down.”

“The viewer is required to make their own interpretation,” the director continues. “The film is actually being opaque. It's forcing the viewer to ask questions. Now, I know there are some people out there who don't like that, who want films to answer every question. They don't like being confused about the intentions of the people making the film. They want to be reassured. But as I see it, film is a broad church. There's lots of different people making lots of different sorts of films. I want to make them like this.”

<p>A24</p> Alex Garland on the set of 'Civil War'

A24

Alex Garland on the set of 'Civil War'

Civil War, then, is less of a specific prediction and more an impressionistic film about how it feels to watch the news these days. Everywhere you look, headlines and screens are filled with images of horrific slaughter in Gaza and Ukraine, right next to destabilizing political battles not just in America but also in Brazil, the United Kingdom, India, and more.

How such conflict gets depicted in the media is on this movie’s mind, because Civil War’s central characters are all journalists. Joel (Wagner Moura) is a writer who has long partnered with photojournalist Lee Miller (Kirsten Dunst), but after years of reporting on wars across the world, they now find themselves covering the home front.

“I was on the edge of my seat,” Dunst tells EW of first reading the script. “I wasn't even focused on my character, which is how you usually read a script. I was just in the film as I was reading it. As soon as I got the role, I was like, ‘Give me a camera!’ I wanted it to look like it was second nature because Lee had a camera in her hand far longer than me. I immediately got to work on using the same Sony lens that Lee uses. I always had it on me and was always photographing.”

<p>A24</p> Kirsten Dunst in 'Civil War'

A24

Kirsten Dunst in 'Civil War'

Garland says he wanted Dunst to play Civil War’s viewpoint character because she’s been a big-screen fixture for decades now, meaning audiences have the long-standing emotional relationship with her that Lee commands in the world of the movie.

“She’s a very good actor, but she also has a lot of lived experience. She hasn't come out of nowhere. That’s a positive when playing a journalist who's really been around,” Garland says. “But another thing I noticed with Kirsten was the way she watches, and the way she looks. She's highly observant, but she carries it very lightly. She doesn't telegraph it, she just does it. That’s basically what photographers do.”

Civil War is sensitive to the burden of journalists trying to report the truth in times of horror. Just as Garland gave his Devs cast a crash course in quantum physics before filming, he screened war films and documentaries for the Civil War crew. Moura drew inspiration for his performance from real-life accounts of war correspondents.

“Like many of these guys, Joel is a war junkie,” Moura says. “Although they are civilians, what they feel is very similar to what soldiers feel in the war zone — that extraordinary adrenaline. When they go back to their daily lives, their life stops making sense, which is a very sad situation. I spoke with some of them, and they just can’t get away. It’s an addiction.”

<p>Murray Close/A24</p> Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, and Cailee Spaeny in 'Civil War'

Murray Close/A24

Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, and Cailee Spaeny in 'Civil War'

Shortly after Civil War begins, Joel is offered a rare opportunity to interview the president. He and Lee set off on a road trip to D.C., accompanied by their old mentor Sammy and an aspiring young photojournalist named Jessie — respectively played by Devs stars Stephen McKinley Henderson and Cailee Spaeny, who made such a dynamic duo on the miniseries that Garland says he conceived of their Civil War characters together.

A good amount of the film takes place inside the car with these four characters, who form a multi-generational coalition of reporters. As they travel to the nation’s capital together, Sammy dispenses sage advice while Jessie tries to learn from her elders (especially Lee, whom she idolizes) as she grows into her talent — mirroring Spaeny’s own experience on set.

“We were all learning from Stephen. He's a well of knowledge but also has such childlike wonder,” Spaeny says. “He’s teaching you these wise lessons without even making it feel like homework. That dynamic between all of us felt really natural.”

For all the resonances Civil War has with U.S. politics in the 2020s, Henderson, a longtime veteran of screen and stage, also saw historical parallels. Working on the film evoked his memories of growing up during the freedom struggles of the 1960s, when photos and footage of violence helped spur positive change in this country.

“It reminded me of myself, when I was coming of age and making realizations that made me understand things on a deeper level, a real human level,” Henderson reflects. “You get your eyes opened to things. That taught me optimism is a revolutionary act, because it's optimistic to believe in change. And I think that's a part of journalism as well, to believe that if you see the truth, you'll gravitate toward it. There's really hope for us all.”

To make the performances feel as organic as possible, Garland and his longtime cinematographer Rob Hardy rigged the cast’s car with an array of cameras while they followed in a second car from a distance.

“One problem with making films is that there are so many artificial structures around, and one of the biggest is the camera crew,” Garland says. “I see myself as part of the camera crew, that’s the space I occupy on set. And I'm often trying to find ways to get the cameras away from the actors.”

“The second we started the car, it was ‘action!’” Spaeny recalls. “It was almost like we were doing a play inside a car — it was amazing. You just eventually forgot that the cameras were there. You didn't have a crew member in your eyeline or someone eating Cheetos in the background. It all felt really pure, and these nuances came out in the acting. We all got to know each other really quickly.”

<p>A24</p> Cailee Spaeny and Kirsten Dunst in 'Civil War'

A24

Cailee Spaeny and Kirsten Dunst in 'Civil War'

In the grand tradition of American road movies, the car ride takes the characters to unexpected places. Some are sad, like a decaying parking lot full of dilapidated cars, stray dogs, and a crashed helicopter. Others are dangerous, like when they catch a glimpse of soldiers doing something that they don’t want photographed.

“We were doing a war movie, but we were also doing a road movie, and there has to be a level of unpredictability about that,” Hardy says. “At any given moment, things could change. So both the viewers and our characters are constantly on the edge. We wanted to augment that feeling with the way in which it was photographed.”

Civil War feels closer to our present-day reality than the robot of Ex Machina, the cosmic mutations of Annihilation, or the mythic horror of Men. But in their fourth collaboration together, Hardy and Garland still find moments of surrealism in Civil War. (“Alex and I are big fans,” Hardy says of the avant-garde style.) At one point, the reporters find themselves caught up in an agonizing duel between two snipers — in the middle of a field of abandoned Christmas decorations. The statues of Mary and Joseph bearing silent witness to this back-and-forth feels like a scathing commentary on America’s disintegrating values. But, oddly enough, this setpiece came out of observation rather than invention.

“Someone’s weird Nativity play had been abandoned by the side of the road, and we just stumbled onto it. That looks like surrealism, but it wasn’t created by our film,” Garland says. “The person who’d put on this Christmas fair had gone bankrupt and had just left all this stuff in the field after he left. We found it about 100 yards away from where we shot the scene. We just dragged it slightly further up the hill.”

<p>Murray Close/A24</p> Cailee Spaeny in 'Civil War'

Murray Close/A24

Cailee Spaeny in 'Civil War'

Even during war, America remains deeply weird. But every time Civil War injects a touch of that colorful strangeness, there’s also a bracing dose of realism. As the characters get closer to their ultimate destination, they find themselves amid actual battle. Here’s where fact and fiction start to blur, because most of the performers playing soldiers around Dunst, Moura, Spaeny, and Henderson are military veterans. They know what this kind of thing looks like.

“We had real Navy SEALs and people that have been in combat part of our collective group in those scenes, as well as stuntmen,” Dunst explains. “Lee knows the signals of when you can go, when it's safe, where cover is, how to tell if there's a break in fire. You know what I mean? You’ve got to pay attention to what the soldiers are doing at all times to figure out when it's safe to move and things like that.”

“Us actors basically had to react in real time, just like our characters, in order to keep up with these guys who have actually lived these experiences,” adds Spaeny. “It just made it feel very intense, and we couldn't have done it without them.”

Whenever art intersects with politics, it’s easy to wonder what exactly the artist is trying to say. But Garland prefers to provoke questions rather than provide answers.

“I put my own opinion into things, but I don't put them front and center because I don't want to shut down a conversation,” the director says. “There's a really simple example of it in Ex Machina. That whole movie is about, ‘Is this machine sentient or not? Does it have consciousness?’ Towards the very end of the film, there's a shot of the robot smiling, and she’s on her own. So then it must be conscious. There’s my answer, but it doesn't have a big flag attached to it. I'd say Civil War has equivalents of that, but I don't want to focus on them. The point of a conversation is that you’re not shouting, ‘This is what I think, and this is what you should think too!’ Then it's something completely different. And to be honest, there's enough people doing that shouting, and they're welcome to it. They've got Twitter or X or whatever the hell it's called, where they can knock themselves out all day and all night.”

In other words, in the midst of war, Garland prefers to keep things civil.

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