How the Movie “Civil War” Echoes Real Political Anxieties

By Equipo
11 Min Read

One subject seems to be unifying the right and the left today: Disunion.

From the multiplex to social media, the prospect of America collapsing into armed conflict has moved from being an idea on the tinfoil-hat fringes to an active undercurrent of the country’s political conversation.

Voters at campaign events bring up their worries that political division could lead to large-scale political violence. Pollsters regularly ask about the idea in opinion surveys. A cottage industry has arisen for speculative fiction, serious assessments and forums about whether the country could be on the verge of a modern-day version of the bloodiest war in American history.

And “Civil War,” a dystopian action film about an alternative America plunged into a bloody domestic conflict, has topped box office sales for two consecutive weekends. The movie has outperformed expectations at theaters from Brownsville, Texas, to Boston, tapping into a dark set of national anxieties that took hold after the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the Capitol.

Of course, the notion of a future civil war remains a mere notion. But, as another presidential election approaches, it has suddenly become a hotly debated one, reflecting the bipartisan sense of unease that has permeated American politics. In polls and in interviews, a segment of voters have said they fear that the country’s divides have grown so deep that they may lead not just to rhetorical battles but actual ones.

“I personally do not believe we will descend into a formal armed civil war,” said Maya Wiley, who ran for mayor of New York City in 2021 and now serves as the president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a civil rights group that has fielded several polls on the topic. “But it’s in the air. It doesn’t surprise me at all that we’re seeing a very explicit fear of where things could go.”

Such fear has been stirred by the violence and chaos that subtly and overtly pervades American politics. Violent threats against members of Congress have reached record levels, as have reports of hate crimes in the country’s largest cities. The husband of Nancy Pelosi, the former House speaker, was beaten with a hammer in his home. The criminal trial of a former president unfolded in a courthouse while a man nearby doused himself with an accelerant and set his body on fire.

In his first campaign speech of the year, President Biden warned of threats to the country’s democracy and suggested that former President Donald J. Trump could stoke future political violence.

“I make this sacred pledge to you: The defense, protection and preservation of American democracy will remain, as it has been, the central cause of my presidency,” he said in an address near Valley Forge, Pa., the site of one of the darkest periods of the American Revolution.

Mr. Trump has glorified the Jan. 6 rioters as patriots and maintained his false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him. When the former president was asked last August by Tucker Carlson whether the country was headed to open conflict, he declined to directly answer.

“I don’t know,” Mr. Trump said. “There’s a level of passion that I’ve never seen. There’s a level of hatred that I’ve never seen, and that’s probably a bad combination.”

The film has no grounding in such partisan politics. The sides are unclear and the ideology — a “Western Alliance” of secessionists from California and Texas — is impossible to imagine given the stark partisan divides between the states. No details are given about the cause of the conflict or the different visions each side has for the future of the country. There’s no mention of Congress, the courts or other civic institutions other than the presidency and references to the F.B.I.

That political vagueness was an intentional choice by the British writer and director, Alex Garland, who began working on the film in 2020 before the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol. “I’d say this film is about checks and balances: polarization, division, the way populist politics leads toward extremism, where extremism itself will end up and where the press is in all of that,” Mr. Garland told The New York Times.

His goal was to create a movie that could illustrate the risks of polarization — not just in the United States but globally — and reach the widest audience possible, said Eric Schultz, a Democratic strategist who met with Mr. Garland in the fall of 2021 and worked as a consultant for the film.

The opaque politics have helped the movie attract an audience that bridges political divides. Exit interviews conducted for A24, the studio that produced the movie, found that half of moviegoers identified as “liberal” and half as “conservative,” according to a person with knowledge of the film’s performance in various markets.

The film outperformed expectations in traditionally conservative markets like Oklahoma City and Colorado Springs, as well as more liberal ones like Portland, Ore. In Phoenix and Dallas, a majority of filmgoers identified as moderate or conservative. The top reason viewers cited for seeing the movie was not an interest in independent cinema or action films but the “political dystopian story line.”

The interest in political chaos tracks with a growing body of research showing a dramatic uptick in public fears of violence.

The polling by Ms. Wiley’s organization found that 53 percent of likely voters believed the country was on the path to a second Civil War.

Other surveys show related concerns. Forty-nine percent of adults said they expected violence from the losing side in future elections, in a poll conducted by CBS/YouGov this year. And a survey by The Associated Press/NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that majorities of both Democratic and Republican adults said American democracy could be at risk depending on who won the next election.

Jess Morales Rocketto, a leader of Equis Research, which studies Latino voters, said discussion of a civil war could stem from more of a feeling of insecurity than a reality for voters.

“I think that people believe we are on the brink of civil war,” she said. “When people say stuff like civil war, World War III, what they mean is volatility and instability. They are saying, ‘I feel unsafe.’”

But Barbara F. Walter, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, who studies civil wars, says the prospect of such a conflict isn’t just metaphorical. She believes the country is facing a decade or two of political instability and violence that could include assassinations of politicians or judges and the rise of militia groups.

The movie’s realistic portrayal of such violence taking place in deeply American settings — a golf course, a roadside gas station, the Lincoln Memorial — put the scenes of violence Americans associate more with foreign conflicts into sharper relief, she said.

“This notion that America could never have a civil war; we’ve already had a really, really big one,” said Ms. Walter, the author of “How Civil Wars Start.” “There’s a sense of naiveté, of innocence, that we’re too good for that sort of stuff. We’re not.”

David Mandel, a producer and writer on the television show “Veep,” said the most successful movies and shows about American political life had a “reciprocal relationship” with public opinion about politics. His show, a comedy about a bumbling vice president that began during the Obama administration, was based on the idea that politicians behaved differently in private, and that a miscalculated public remark could lead to their political destruction. As president, Mr. Trump routinely defied that norm, and “Veep” ended before he left the White House.

“By a couple of weeks into the Trump administration, there was no ‘behind closed doors’ and there was no such thing as comeuppance,” Mr. Mandel said. “The show became impossible to do.”

David W. Blight, a historian at Yale University who specializes in the Civil War period, said he did not believe the country stood on the precipice of another one. But if the country were to reach that point, he said, the conflict could share more with the movie version than the historical one.

The Civil War was a regional and ideological crisis that featured some of the largest armies ever formed, he said. A second one would most likely be far more local and vigilante, and stirred by increasing polarization and institutional mistrust.

“For the last couple of years, there’s been all this chatter and a few books out about whether the U.S. is on the brink of a new civil war, and you have to keep telling people, ‘Well no, not in the way you may think about it,’” he said. “Our real Civil War blinds us in that sense.”

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