Tuesday, April 30, 2024

"Bullets Don't Have a Name on Them": Civil War (2024), Gaza, and Guns


"Bullets don't have a name on them."

- One of my neighbors

Alex Garland's Civil War (2024) is one of the more disturbing films I've seen recently, and that's saying something, because I also watched Jonathan Glazer's The Zone of Interest several weeks ago. I've been meaning to write something about Civil War since I saw it last week. And here I am. 

But my original plan changed. While I was taking a walk this afternoon, I heard gunshots a couple blocks behind me, not far from where some little kids were playing with their dog. Thankfully nobody was hurt. The police arrived a few minutes later. Neighbors milled around. I was told that people were shooting at each other from driving cars. Or so I discovered after I walked (quickly) several blocks away from the noise and looped back ten minutes later. I told one of the bystanders a similar incident occurred in front of my house a couple years ago. He responded that it's a danger to all of us, because "bullets don't have a name on them."

Such is the madness of early 21st century America. And indeed, much of the world. As I write this, there are high-profile military conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza, but also less well-known conflicts in Myanmar, Sudan, Syria, and elsewhere, not to mention violent unrest in parts of Mexico and the Americas.

While most of the US is not a literal war zone as depicted in Civil War, writer and director Alex Garland raises a disturbing question: "How far away are we?" The film imagines a disturbingly-plausible alternate present or near-future in which regular Americans are fighting each other with military weapons.

A lot of critics have lambasted the film for not making any political sense. One of the several factions is the Western Forces, consisting of Texas and California, while another is many (but not all) of the remaining states. Is this a case of an English writer/director who doesn't understand the intricacies of American politics?

I think this criticism misses the point. Completely. The point is that once the shooting starts, none of this matters. As my neighbor put it, bullets don't have a name on them.

Besides, given their large, robust economies, maybe Texas and California would get sick of supporting the rest of us. And if you don't see some Trumpian qualities in Nick Offerman's portrayal of the President of the authoritarian loyalist states, then I don't know what movie you watched.

But again, Civil War is not a political thriller. It's ultimately incidental that the film takes place in America, because America is not special, as much as American Exceptionalism might try to convince us otherwise. Civil War may not even be as much of an antiwar movie as I'd like it to be (more on that later).

Really, Civil War is a film about war journalists, photojournalists in particular. Kirsten Dunst plays a veteran photojournalist who has covered wars around the globe. When civil war breaks out at home, she covers it along with a few fellow journalists. They hatch a plan to go to Washington, DC to cover the incursion of the Western Forces into the White House, which is presumably the final straw in the war between the Western Forces and the loyalist states. It's unclear how other factions like the Florida Alliance enter into things, but again, that's not really the point. (Garland's directing and Rob Hardy's cinematography make this an oddly beautiful film given all the carnage, along with the ethereal, unnerving score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow).

Dunst is phenomenal in the part as are the other main cast, Wagner Moura, Cailee Spaeny, and Stephen McKinley Henderson (who also played Thufir Hawat in Dune, albeit not in Dune Part Two, but he may be back in part three). At one point one of the journalists says they've never been more terrified--or felt more alive.

This aspect of the story reminded me of a deeply interesting and unsettling book I read years ago called War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning by war journalist Chris Hedges. Part of Hedges's point is that war is, well, a force that gives meaning to people's lives, for better and for worse (mostly for worse in his opinion). He also talked about his own experience covering war zones as terrifying/thrilling in the way depicted in Civil War.

The fact that war is such a powerful force in human life is something that proponents of nonviolence can't afford to ignore. I'm a pacifist by nature and philosophical conviction, but many of my favorite works of fiction are about war. Many of the most inspirational moments in human history are in the context of war. There's no sense in denying this, or the violent impulses many humans have. We can't deny the social, cultural, and economic forces that shape, channel, abet, and inflame these violent tendencies and make them easier to carry out in harmful and lethal ways (one of the disturbing things about Civil War is that nobody bothers to ask, "Where did regular Americans get all these weapons?").

Another powerful moment in Civil War for me is when a journalist says they thought they were sending warnings home: don't end up like this! But it didn't matter.

And I think this is one of the deeper points of the film. It is a warning to all of us. We Americans like to think, "it can't happen here." We also thought this about authoritarianism and fascism. Yet here we are.

Like my neighbor's observation about bullets, one of the points of Civil War is that once the violence starts, politics doesn't matter. Politics may get us into violence. It may even get us out. But when the bullets start flying, it doesn't matter. 

That's what I think a lot of critics miss about Civil War. We Americans like to put everything these days in our political frameworks of left-right-center, Democrats and Republicans, Trumpists and everyone else, yadda yadda yadda 24/7 on Fox News and MSNBC. But when it comes to violence and killing, as happens a few times in the film, you don't always know what other people's politics are. What matters is that they're trying to kill you.

Turning to the war that's taking up so much of the world's attention these days, I don't say much about the war in Gaza, because I think we (at least in the US) have turned it into a political issue rather than a humanitarian one. Tens of thousands of people are dead no matter what those people thought about one-state or two-state solutions, the political intricacies of the Hamas and Netanyahu governments, or antisemitism on US college campuses. 

I'm not saying that those things don't matter (they do), but they matter less to me right now than the fact that the fact that people are suffering and dying. It has to stop. Now. Only then can we do the hard political work that might stop the next war.

War and violence have to stop, not because someone has or doesn't have the right politics, but because we're all human. We're all in this together no matter how our leaders try to divide us. Again, I'm not saying politics doesn't matter, but that there's no politics in a warzone. Or as my neighbor put it, bullets don't have names on them. Bullets maim and kill no matter who you vote for, who you hang out with, or what memes you share. Violence is everyone's problem.

I don't want to spoil the ending of Civil War, but I wonder if it somewhat undermines the antiwar warning of the film. Or maybe it also echoes Hedges's point about war and meaning. I'm not sure. I may have to watch it again. Or, esteemed reader, let me know what you think.

Given the occasional gunshots, I'm sure a lot of people (especially middle-class white Americans) would tell me to move to a "better" neighborhood. But what neighborhood in America is free from gun violence? What part of the world is safe from violence and war? If real history and fictional histories like Civil War have taught us anything, it's the cold, disturbing truth that none of us are safe. It can happen anywhere. It can happen here. 

But there lies the thin thread of hope (a thread that sadly seems to get thinner everyday): none of us are safe until all of us are safe. This gives all of us reason to work toward a safer, less violent world for everyone, if only we heed warnings like Alex Garland's and my neighbor's.

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