What We Can Learn From the Civil War Movie

Jessica Carpenter

Originally published on AllSides.com. This blog is in collaboration with AllSides, a nonpartisan media group focused on strengthening our democratic society with balanced news, media bias ratings, diverse perspectives, and real conversation.

Disturbing. Unsettling. A warning. That’s how I would describe the new civil war film out of A24 studio.

Last week, I had the opportunity to take a first look at this movie depicting what a modern day American civil war would look like. And just so you know, it didn’t pull any punches.

The movie follows four photojournalists on their trek from New York to Washington D.C. to exclusively interview the President before the rebel factions advance onto the capital. Viewers are taken through Eastern states that have become the battleground for this war. We see Americans fighting each other in their everyday clothes shielded partially by bulletproof vests, soldiers fighting on both sides with their American camouflage—an ironic twist on the “American hero” portrait. We see refugee camps nestled in collapsed cities scrawled with graffiti— nearly unrecognizable. 

As someone working for an organization combating political division, this film presents a fate I’ve been tirelessly working to prevent, and lays it out for millions to see. Currently, 43% of Americans think a civil war is a possibility in the next decade, and 81% of people fear for the future of our democracy, including two-thirds of young people. Not only that, but 66% of people believe that political divisions in this country have gotten worse since the beginning of 2021, and 60% anticipate an increase in political violence in the next few years.

While Civil War director Alex Garland gives no explicit reason for the war, he says that the movie, in general, is about polarization and the extreme political rhetoric that’s intended to make us believe the other side is evil. Once we believe the other side is evil, we can justify all sorts of measures. 

“We’ve lost trust in the media and politicians. And some in the media are wonderful and some politicians are wonderful—on both sides of the divide. I have a political position and 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 [conversation] 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 do you think has greater efficacy? That’s it. You try one, and if that doesn’t work out, you vote it out, and you try again 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…incredibly dangerous,” he says.

Three factors in the movie got me thinking about problems we’re seeing today that could potentially lead us down a similar path of violence.

Loss of Trust in Institutions

The first is loss of faith in our institutions. In Civil War, it’s revealed that the president (played by Nick Offerman) is a third-term president who has abolished the FBI. This is a driving force for the rebel factions heading to Washington D.C.. In America, our institutions play important roles in governance, maintaining law and order, and conflict resolution. 

Recent years of political division in the U.S. have caused massive distrust in our nation’s institutions, including in sectors like government, education, policing and religious organizations. As of June 2023, only 26% of Americans had confidence in the role of presidency in the United States; 27% had confidence in the U.S. Supreme Court; 17% in the criminal justice system; and just 8% had confidence in Congress. 

The loss of faith in institutions can have far-reaching consequences such as an increase in widespread distrust, political and economic instability, decreased compliance with laws and regulations, and an erosion of social cohesion.

While distrust may be warranted in some cases, the total erosion of trust cannot and will not leave the country intact. In the movie, it led to a civil war. In real life, these trends have led to wars like the French Revolution (1789), Mexican Revolution (1910) and Russian Civil War (1917). 

The Importance of Good Journalism

Another interesting element of the Civil War movie was that it was told from the perspective of journalists. While traveling from New York to Washington D.C., moviegoers watch the war unfold in snapshots from the main characters’ camera lenses. Along the way, Jessie, a young photojournalist (played by Cailee Spaeny) learns that it’s not their job to ask “why” all of this is happening, but rather capture the photos and let other people decide what they make of it.

I thought this was a nice tribute back to traditional journalism–when readers were given information to help them understand current events instead of commentary about how to think about them. It’s also where we’ll find the second unspoken element that could lead us down an unwanted path today: The role of the media in the future of our country.

In 2023, just 32% of Americans said they had trust in the media. This is important because when people feel like they don’t have access to reliable information, it leads to more distrust and the spread of misinformation. An increase in biased media has also led to the creation of echo chambers that affirm our own viewpoints and cause us to have misconceptions about people who think differently.

The media has an important role in informing us about issues and events both within our country and around the world. But what happens when we can’t trust our news sources? Or when we don’t get the full story because it contradicts the bias of the news outlet or the government? In such circumstances, the erosion of trust in the media not only jeopardizes the integrity of information dissemination, but also threatens the foundations of democracy and social stability. Thomas Jefferson highlighted the importance of an independent media to a functioning democracy when he said, “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” If anything, this movie highlighted the importance of the media’s integral presence and ability to share information objectively, even in the face of a crumbling government.

Dehumanization and the Loss of Humanity

Civil War’s final unspoken element leading to a civil war, and possibly biggest, is the loss of humanity. 

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the film for some is the absence of clear sides. The lines drawn in the film didn’t fall along today’s partisan lines. (I mean, how did California and Texas end up on the same side?). But, I thought that was a brilliant decision by Garland because it removes our ability to assign “good” and “bad” to any one side, and instead, we’re made to focus on the complete deterioration of humanity happening on screen.

At its core, this movie really shows what happens when our humanity breaks down, and when we see each other as the ‘enemy’. According to a 2021 poll by CBS News and YouGov, 54% of Americans now think that the biggest threat to their way of life comes from domestic enemies.

The poll found that among Democrats, 47% saw Republicans as “enemies”. Alternatively, 49% of Republicans said the same about Democrats. And a poll from Pew Research Center showed majorities in both parties viewed members of the other party as more “immoral, dishonest, and close-minded” than other Americans. This is the biggest problem driving our political culture today, and could be what leads to violence in the future.

In Civil War, it didn’t matter who was fighting who. To see both every day American people, and American soldiers, gunned down at the hands of each other is a completely unsettling and heartbreaking picture because we know them. They’re our neighbors, classmates, coworkers, family members and friends.

When we don’t see each other as people, and we don’t engage constructively with each other, we allow room for misunderstanding and hate to grow. This should be the largest takeaway from the movie. Among other factors, this was also a large driver of the American Civil War in 1861.

Civil War Doesn’t Have to be a Premonition

As much as we throw the idea around in this polarized time, and for how often “#CivilWar” trends on X, this movie showed me that we don’t understand the gravity of what a modern civil war would truly look like. Separating along ideological lines or by state also isn’t necessary.

New data indicates that our perceived differences are exaggerated. A study conducted by Axios this month revealed “compelling evidence of a distorted reality bubble.” This distortion stems from the amplification of fringe perspectives, primarily by the most vocal individuals on social media and certain politicians.

What if I told you that roughly 90% or more of Americans — Republicans and Democrats — actually agreed on the right to vote, right to freedom of speech and religion, and even the right to own a gun? Understanding that we aren’t that different from each other is a necessary step to preventing political violence and increased division in America.

Obviously, a modern day civil war is not ideal. And fortunately, only about 4% of Americans support partisan violence in America. Still, this movie shines a light on factors that, if not addressed, could lead to increased tension and division within our country in years to come.

We can start paving a better path for ourselves by recognizing these problems and creating conversations. Actor Wagner Moura said on CBS Sunday Morning, “Now I’m really making an effort to sit down and listen to people that I disagree [with]. And I was absolutely surprised to see that if you value democracy, if you think that democracy is an important thing, then there’s lots of common ground.” 

Garland said his movie was not about cynicism, it was a warning: “The consequences of it are so serious that to not take the threat seriously would, itself, be another kind of insanity.” To recognize the actual devastation of the threat at hand and to hold, at the same time, that we are not as divided as we have been led to believe, means that we can work toward building trust and preventing the downward spiral of polarization. 

To be a part of the solution this week, consider participating in a National Week of Conversation event, as Americans across the country join together to support a continuing United States of America.

Read more takes on Civil War here and here