Kirsten Dunst plays a photojournalist in “Civil War.” Photo courtesy of A24

The United States is seemingly finished. Heavily armed militias claiming sovereignty over places like Texas, Florida and California have split off from the U.S. and are marching on Washington, D.C., where the beleaguered president desperately tries to beat back the inevitable. Meanwhile, the nation’s laws are flouted by the militias, resulting in war crimes, bigotry-based extrajudicial killings and a populace as divided as it is terrified. Meanwhile, a small group of journalists attempt to make their way alive through the constant violence to somehow get to Washington, and the story of the century.

This is Alex Garland’s “Civil War,” opening this week at theaters all over Maine. Here’s a look at this latest and other cinematic portrayals of an apocalyptic America and what they really say about our country.

Will America survive?

Well, that’s the thing, director-writer Garland (“Ex Machina,” Annihilation,” “Men”) is less interested in presenting viewers with a blueprint for civil war, or a map for how to overcome it. The writer of “28 Days Later” has shown how quickly and horrifically any human society will shuck off the veneer of civilized behavior when the you-know-what hits the fan. According to the British director, Garland wrote “Civil War” in the pandemic-panicked days of 2020, when followers of an election-losing American president stormed the halls of government in a violent insurrection against the peaceful transfer of power. It’s the sort of atmosphere where myths of American infallibility and invincibility crumble – and fascinating, terrifying creative possibilities become visible through the widening cracks.

Nick Offerman as the U.S. president in “Civil War.” Photo courtesy of A24

Should you worry?

About “Civil War” – probably not much. Despite the predictably ramping-up outrage and finger-pointing from both sides of the film’s potential viewership, the reliably intelligent and compelling Garland’s film is reportedly much more about what happens when a society falls than it is interested in examining how. The film’s alternate America is further down the road to chaos, fascism and sectarian violence than ours is (currently, at least), with the film’s stellar cast (Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Jesse Plemons and Nick Offerman as the president) channeling not so much us now as us when the unthinkable actually happens. As for the possibility of a fractured America succumbing deeper to the violent rhetoric of racist, authoritarian demagogues who’d rather burn democracy down than admit that their ideas are increasingly rejected by an increasingly diverse populace – well, that’s for you to decide your worry level.


How close have the movies come to destroying the U.S.A. in the past?

While it’s easy to hurl a supernatural, natural or science fiction-y cataclysm at the country and sit back to enjoy the comfortably fictional carnage, the most gutting depictions are the most grounded in reality. As actual history has shown, and “Civil War” suggests, the placid, “everything will turn out fine” complacency built into American exceptionalism is a carefully tended fiction in itself. Sure, zombies (“Dawn of the Dead,” Garland’s own “28 Days Later”), runaway space junk (“Armageddon,” “Don’t Look Up”) or good old alien invasions (too many to name) are a fun time at the movies. But audiences are more likely to squirm in their suddenly sweaty seats when they are presented with an apocalypse rooted in stuff they see on the news every day.

What movie has come closest?

As the smoke from the Jan. 6 treason party settled, and thwarted, furious and heavily armed fans of Donald Trump screeched out tweets promising an actual second Civil War, I found myself getting angry, too. No, not at the anti-democracy throngs, but that I kept asking myself, “Is ‘Bushwick’ going to be the single most prophetic movie in American history?” For those few who recall (the 2017 action movie made a measly 60 grand at the box office), “Bushwick” posits an ordinary day in the titular Brooklyn neighborhood suddenly torn by inexplicable violence. Armed troops flood the streets in unfamiliar uniforms, while stars Brittany Snow and Dave Bautista scramble to stay alive and figure out what the hell is happening. What’s happening is that second Civil War, with right-wing separatists invading blue regions with the intent of overthrowing democracy, with all its multiculturalism and so forth.

What makes “Bushwick” so unsettling?

Apart from being a solid little B-movie slice of speculative action, the film, written by Nick Damici and Graham Reznick, drops viewers into the soup right along with its panicked protagonists. Amid street-to-street bloodshed, we’re left to piece together the horrible picture through snatches of dialogue, spotty news reports and breathless speculation. The film foregoes long-winded ideology for immediacy and sudden, shocking violence as Snow’s grad student and Bautista’s PTSD-stricken former soldier navigate a war-torn reality as mind-blowing to them as it is all too familiar to war-torn places elsewhere on the planet. When the answers come, the film layers in sly slices of irony and satire. (The “red state” invaders are shocked that “liberal” big city folk have so many guns, defiant Brooklynite’s chants of “Who’s streets? Our streets!” call on the Black Lives Matter protests for added resonance.) But “Bushwick,” apparently like the more ambitious “Civil War,” likewise focuses on the dawning horror of a world shocked out of its happy security by the sudden explosion of its long-simmering hatred.

Will “Civil War” be a hit?

Probably not. Audiences like their world-threatening movie disasters to come bearing zombie viruses or ray guns. Seeing your neighbors – or yourself – holding the gun is just too believable to be fun.

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

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