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Alex Garland's new film imagines what a truly divided America could look like


You hear this a lot these days. We live in a divided country. Well, a new film imagines what it might look like if those divisions become violent fault lines. "Civil War" begins with a presidential address, a president who has assumed a third term. He's refusing to leave power, and his government has descended into fascism.


NICK OFFERMAN: (As President) Citizens of America, people of the Florida Alliance and the Western Forces of Texas and California will be welcomed back to these United States as soon as their illegal secessionist government is deposed.

FADEL: The entire film is told from the perspective of a group of journalists. They're driving toward the front lines, hoping to get ahead of the Western Forces advancing on Washington D.C. Writer and director Alex Garland felt the only way to truly tell this story was through the people trying to document their own nation at war.

ALEX GARLAND: I wanted to show something which is extremely disturbing and shocking and could be, at times, exhilarating and propulsive. But underneath it, there's something terrifying and the dispassionate way that journalists approach this is, in a way, what you need to be able to take it in and absorb it. So I tried to make reporters as the heroes. I think they're very necessary, and I rather admire them.

FADEL: It's interesting 'cause you talk about the journalists in this movie as heroes of the film, but watching it, I mean, I've covered a lot of conflict in my career, and definitely I recognize an archetype that is in your movie. But it also is very, in some ways, damning of the industry, almost, like, there's a heartlessness and a dark humor that I also very much recognize as a coping mechanism to documenting this type of trauma. Kirsten Dunst is Lee, this exhausted war photographer who has really seen so much in the work that she does. She and a few other journalists are driving to the frontlines, and a young, aspiring photographer named Jessie tags along, and she idolizes Lee.


CAILEE SPAENY: (As Jessie) I didn't take a single photo. I didn't even remember I had cameras on me. Like, oh, my God, like, why didn't I just tell him not to shoot them?

WAGNER MOURA: (As Joel) They were probably going to kill them anyway.

SPAENY: (As Jessie) How do you know?

KIRSTEN DUNST: (As Lee) He doesn't know, but that's besides the point. Once you start asking yourself those questions, you can't stop. So we don't ask. We record so other people ask. You want to be a journalist? That's the job.

GARLAND: In a funny way, there's something sort of slightly autobiographical about that, because, like, I grew up around journalists, war correspondents, and terrifically admired them. Ultimately, I suppose, wanting to be like them and then was sternly told, stay the hell away from this, because it will screw you up. You know, Lee has risked her life for a long time, has traumatized herself for a long time for a purpose that then seems to have been futile.

As a journalist, if you are risking your life and breaking the story has no appreciable effect, then what are you risking your life...

FADEL: Yeah.

GARLAND: ...For? So on top of the you will be traumatized, you will get sucked into a world you may not want to be in, there will be a price you pay, which I guess was the terms in which I was taught to when I was much younger.

FADEL: So many places that end up in civil war before it starts, everybody's like, that would never happen here. I've covered communities talking like that, and then suddenly, that's happening there. But it was still jarring to watch your film in the U.S., seeing scenes of, you know, an abandoned JCPenney and burned-out tanks everywhere, an Apache helicopter. The scene where the journalists come upon a mass grave site, there's a militia-type figure, and he asks, what kind of American are you?


MOURA: (As Joel) There's some kind of misunderstanding here.

JESSE PLEMONS: (As character) What?

MOURA: (As Joel) We are American, OK?

PLEMONS: (As character) OK. What kind of American are you?

FADEL: I recognize that scene from civil wars that I lived in as a kid and civil wars I've covered, places like Baghdad where they change their name to make sure they weren't in the wrong neighborhood to get killed on their sect. I just want to get a sense of how you wrote that. Did you look at other modern places that have fought each other?

GARLAND: Well, in some ways, it is a feature of all wars.

FADEL: Yeah.

GARLAND: I think you could guarantee that in Ukraine, there are the same patterns of behavior that could be lifted up straight from the Second World War and moved from one to the other, with no dissonance in the behavior. Anywhere where people are involved in killing each other, there are some things that you can guarantee. You can basically guarantee war crimes. You can guarantee it. They absolutely will occur.

FADEL: Yeah. And it's very similar. You're right. Libya, Ukraine, Lebanon, every war I've covered. But you've also got this dichotomy, right? The people documenting the war trying to inform. And then there are the people just trying to pretend it's not happening.


FADEL: Throughout the movie, there are references, even the journalists' relatives living on farms in Missouri, Colorado, just pretending it's not there. What are you saying with these two very different approaches to war, running towards it and pretending it's not there?

GARLAND: Well, I have someone quite close to me in my family who chooses to not look at the news at all because they find it so kind of psychically upsetting that they just find that their own equilibrium in a day-to-day way is better if they don't access these things, and they don't worry about these things. I'm actually very sympathetic to that. I understand that. However, I think that there is an obligation to be aware of what is happening because the consequences are serious. I think if people took on board how serious the consequences were, they would feel less neutral. Right now, we need to engage. When we fail to engage in these things, exponentially serious problems can result.

FADEL: Is this a warning? Is your film a warning?

GARLAND: Everything's a warning (laughter).

FADEL: That's Alex Garland. He's the writer and director of the new movie "Civil War." Alex, thanks for triggering me.

GARLAND: Oh. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to trigger you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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