New film warns Americans civil war can come

'Civil War' isn't aimed at predicting future politics but warning of the dangers of the current political polarisation in America

A still from the new film 'Civil War' shows actress Kirsten Dunst reacting to an explosion.
A still from the new film 'Civil War' shows actress Kirsten Dunst reacting to an explosion.

New film warns Americans civil war can come

As the American presidential election campaign gains momentum, many Americans are worried about the risk of political violence. An opinion survey by NPR-Marist at the end of March indicated that 20% of respondents agreed that Americans must use violence to put America on the right path; 28% of Republicans in the survey agreed with this statement.

In March, Donald Trump, again the Republican Party candidate for president, told a campaign rally that the people who stormed the Capitol building on 6 January 2021 to stop the certification of Joseph Biden’s election victory were patriots. In that rally, Trump also warned there would be “bloodshed” if he did not win the November 2024 election.

In a recent interview, Trump said that he did not know if there would be a serious conflict, but he said, “There is a lot of hatred and passion out there. It is a bad combination.”

Although Trump’s remarks caused controversy, according to the NPR-Marist poll, 41% of Americans think the country needs a leader who will break laws to put the country on a good track, including 56% of the Republicans in the survey. Meanwhile, a poll from the Associated Press at the end of March indicated only 30% of Americans think American democracy is functioning well.

Box-office hit

Widespread concerns about political violence, polarisation, instability, and even civil war are just under the surface in much of the current American politics. These worries encouraged millions of Americans in April to watch a new film in cinemas about a civil war in America in the next few years.

Civil War was the most popular in cinemas during the middle weeks of April after its release, exceeding the ticket sales of a film about a commando team in the Second World War and a film about a teenage vampire.

Interestingly, the company that produced the film conducted surveys of people exiting the cinemas after the film and found that the viewers were about evenly divided between liberals and conservatives.

The film enjoyed strong attendance in strongly liberal cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, and Chicago, as well as in more conservative cities like Dallas, Oklahoma City, and Kansas City. Millions of Americans wanted to see what a civil war in America could look like.

To satisfy their curiosity, the film shows a highway in Pennsylvania with dozens of destroyed cars after a government air strike and later images of empty cities and roads with damaged buildings and bodies of people executed and hanging from overpasses and trees.

Later, the group of travelling journalists at the centre of the story come to a shopping centre parking lot after a battle where there are remains of a destroyed JC Penney store and destroyed Humvees, tanks, and helicopters.

A still from the new film 'Civil War' that shows a refugee camp in an American city.

The journalists later spend a night in the relative safety of a refugee camp in a stadium in another small American city. The scene even has an international relief organisation managing the camp and assigning American refugees their sites there.

An apolitical film about politics

The film has generated controversy and discussion as its producer, Alex Gardiner, and the actors had hoped. One criticism, especially from writers in liberal newspapers, was that the film does not explain how America fell into a civil war.

In the film's opening are a few sentences about a president who remained in the White House for a third term (which is illegal under the American constitution) and who disbanded the FBI. (It is interesting to note that some members of the Republican Party in Congress have suggested disbanding the FBI.)

This president rehearses a speech whose language about “the greatest military victory in the history of mankind” uses bombastic language like Donald Trump. However, the film carefully avoids ever mentioning political parties, the Congress, or the courts.

The film never singles out any political party, although the opening scene mentions a president who stayed in power for a third term and disbanded the FBI.

Los Angeles Times Culture Affairs critic Mary McNamara wrote on 22 April that not explaining what political forces caused the civil war makes both American political parties appear responsible for the civil war, which is reckless given the actions of the Republican Party and Donald Trump.

In particular, the film's premise that Texas and California joined together to fight against the president and capture the capital is almost unimaginable, given the sharp political differences between the two states now. McNamara wondered what could possibly bring the two states to cooperate except an invasion from another planet.

Other writers have defended the film's avoidance of a deep political discussion so that it can focus on the chaos and the unpredictable and uncontrolled violence.

Early in the film, there is a crowd in a damaged New York neighbourhood surrounding a tanker distributing drinking water when a terrorist bomb explodes, killing dozens for no apparent political reason. In another scene, the travelling journalists at the centre of the story ask two armed men firing at a house who their commander is.

One of them, a young man with bright blue hair who does not look like a young Republican Party member, answers that no one is giving them orders. They are shooting because someone in the house is trying to kill them, and they, in turn, are trying to kill the snipers in the house. Politics is not the issue.

Militias controlling American towns

American analysts of counter-terrorism and domestic militias worry less now about the US army breaking apart to start a civil war. Instead, they worry more about the possibility of political violence from small bands of militants and individual extremists. The film explores this worry in more detail.

In September 2003, as American authority diminished in Iraq, a group of teenagers from the Badr Corps detained me and held me at gunpoint for three hours. I am, therefore, more sensitive than many people to the dangers of militias controlling a neighbourhood or a city.

The most frightening parts of the film highlight local gunmen who control neighbourhoods and towns and want control for the sake of their own power. In one scene, the journalists stop at a gasoline station in a deserted town where two young gunmen are torturing two men hanging from chains in the station carwash.

There are no police or security forces to stop them. They do not explain why they are torturing the prisoners, and the journalists make a quick escape after buying precious gasoline (the gunmen only accept Canadian dollars).  

In the most powerful scene in the movie, two gunmen are filling a mass grave with bodies and are preparing to murder two of the journalists when the other two arrive to try to convince the gunmen not to kill their colleagues.

One of the gunmen, who is wearing red sunglasses and looks like young Elton John, asks the journalists, "What kind of American are you?" The question immediately reminded me of checkpoints in the Algerian civil war in the 1990s, in Baghdad during the civil war there and in Syria after the revolution became violent on all sides.

Who are these gunmen, and who are they fighting? As citizens from those countries would themselves remember, the question is terrifying because the correct, safe answer is not always immediately clear.

For an average American citizen, the question is both confusing and frightening; no one asks us what kind of American we are. And in those civil wars, and in this film also, the answer sometimes does not matter: the gunmen kill simply on the basis of appearance and identity. 

The film concludes with vivid scenes of the rebels capturing Washington, where we see tanks, soldiers, and helicopters in intense fighting in the streets that are empty of civilians anywhere. The film concludes with rebels overrunning the White House and the extrajudicial killing of the president.

But unlike most American films, this film has no clear happy ending. Although the film defends the importance of journalists, there are no heroes in the film, and because we do not know the political vision of the victorious rebels, we do not know if America, after the civil war, will be a better country.

The film's producer and actors emphasise that the intent of the film is not to predict future politics but to warn about the danger of current polarisation in American political life.

There is an ongoing debate among American analysts about how near the country is to a civil war, as we see in the film. Many analysts predict no such wide-scale war is likely.

However, political analyst Barbara Walters, who is a consultant for the CIA about unstable societies abroad and who authored a book in 2022 about the growing risk of a civil war in the United States, is not so sure. She emphasised that in her interviews with citizens in other countries where civil wars had occurred people had told her they did not see the war coming.

Film producer Alex Gardiner also worries that people are too relaxed about the risk of a civil war in the United States. In March, he told the Associated Press that "when things collapse, the speed at which they collapse tends to surprise people, including people like intelligence officers…Things are always in a slightly more dangerous state than they might appear."

The presidential election is in six months.

font change

Related Articles