'Civil War': Director Alex Garland Talks His New Movie & Defends Its Lack Of Easy Answers

Alex Garland took SXSW 2024 by storm last night with the world premiere of his latest film, “Civil War.” And the new feature, about a near-future United States fractured into warring factions, has many moviegoers excited and anxious about the film’s imminent release in theaters and IMAX next month. THR reports that Garland took questions about his new movie at a Film & TV panel in Austin today to explain why he chose to make “Civil War,” if he’s trying to say anything explicit about American politics, and whether A24‘s release of this film before the 2024 US presidential election is deliberate bad timing or coincidental.

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And Garland was quick to dismiss that he has any ulterior motives to sway voters this November. Instead, he offered a basis of comparison to an earlier film of his, “Ex Machina,” that similarly takes on hotly debated topics. “When I worked on “Ex Machina,” about AI, people sometimes use the word ‘prescient’ or ‘predictive’ [to describe it], and I always feel slightly embarrassed when people say that because at the time I wrote it, there was a huge debate happening about it,” Garland told the audience. “I think all of the topics in [“Civil War”] have been a part of a huge public debate for years and years. These debates have been growing and growing in volume and awareness, but none of that is secret or unknown to almost anybody.”

Garland continued, “I thought that everybody understands these terms and, at that point, I just felt compelled to write about it. If you cast your mind back to when I wrote this in June four years ago, there was an election coming and we’re just dealing with Covid — the same conversations as now. Identical. So that’s where it came from.” In other words, no, “Civil War” isn’t a pointed commentary on the 2024 US Presidential election or either of its candidates. And that makes sense, considering Garland paints the conflict between the divided US in “Civil War” vaguely, with alliances between states not delineated cleanly over a “red state/blue state” binary. For instance, California and Texas are allies in the upcoming film, while the President in command, played by Nick Offerman, is in his third-term. The fictional President’s coup starts after he disbands the FBI: a possible nod to Trump, who has told his followers he’d like to defund the bureau. But again, any deliberate connection there is speculative at best.

Even then, Garland did want to supply the audience of “Civil War” with easy answers. “I personally think questions are answered,” Garland stated. “There’s a lot of things that are clearly answered. There is a fascist president who smashed the Constitution and attacked [American] citizens. And that is a very clear, answered statement. If you want to think about why Texas and California might be allied, and putting aside their political differences, the answer would be implicit in that. So I think answers are there but you have to step to it and not expect to be spoon fed these things. It makes assumptions about the audience … the warnings [about the country falling apart] all out there, but for some reason they don’t have any traction. [I thought,] ‘Is it the polarization? Is it just that we are not able to absorb any information because of the position we’ve already taken?’ Hence making a movie that pulls the polarization out of it.”

This opaque backdrop is what Garland wanted in “Civil War,” as it helps universalize the conflict onscreen. “America’s divisions here are echoed almost precisely in many countries around the world,” Garland went on. “In the case of America, there’s an extra danger given its power and importance in the world. America has an internal concept in its exceptionalism that means it feels it’s immune to some kinds of problems. One of the things history shows us is that nobody is immune. Nobody is exceptional. And if we don’t apply rationality and decency and thoughtfulness to these problems, in any place, it can get out of control.”

“I’m not trying to locate [these issues] to America, that would be factually wrong. I can take you back home [to Britain] and I can show you the same stuff happening in my country,” Garland continued, “but the implications here are much greater.” Garland also stressed that America’s relaxed stance on gun control wasn’t a reason he set the film in the US either. “Any country can disintegrate into civil war whether there pepare guns floating around the country or not,” he noted. “Some civil wars have been carried out with machetes and still managed to kill a million people.”

By the end of the panel, Garland stressed that he wants “Civil War” to start a conversation instead of reinforcing political divides. “Why are we talking and not listening?” he asked. “We’ve lost trust with the media and politicians. And some media are wonderful and some politicians are wonderful—on both sides of the divide. I have a political position. I have good friends on the other side of that political divide. Honestly, I’m not trying to be cute: What’s so hard about that? Why are we shutting this down? Left and right, are ideological arguments about how to run a state. That’s all they are. They are not a right or wrong, or good and bad. It’s which one do you think has greater efficacy? That’s it. And then you try one and if that doesn’t work out, you vote it out, and you try again with a different way. That’s a process. But we’ve made it into ‘good and bad.’ We made it into a moral issue, and it’s f*cking idiotic … I personally attach some of this to social media.”

Here’s an official synopsis for “Civil War,” courtesy of SXSW:

From filmmaker Alex Garland comes a journey across a dystopian future America, following a team of military-embedded journalists as they race against time to reach DC before rebel factions descend upon the White House.

“Civil War” stars Kirsten Duntz, Offerman, Wagner MouraCailee SpaenyStephen McKinley Henderson, and Sonoya Mizuno. Other cast includes Karl GlusmanJefferson WhiteJauni FelizNelson Lee, and Jesse Plemons. Garland also writes the film’s script, as he typically does for his films.

As noted earlier, “Civil War” hits theaters and IMAX screens everywhere on April 12. Watch a trailer for the film below (and read The Playlist’s review of “Civil War” out of SXSW here).