Most films come and go without much notice from the movie going public. Whether because of a bungled release strategy or a lack of thought or skill by the filmmakers, it's rare, especially these days, for a movie to get people talking. Alex Garland’s Civil War doesn’t have that problem. If anything, Civil War has too many people talking.

The film, set in an undetermined near future, is ostensibly about a theoretical scenario in which America is dragged into a second civil war where states like Texas, California, and Florida have seceded to rebel against a clearly fascist President played by Nick Offerman. Most of the negative reactions to the film fall on one of two tracts. The first is that the scenario Garland has conjured up, specifically Texas and California being on the same side of a political conflict, is simply too unrealistic to ever occur. The second, as some have argued, is that while Garland has made a finely crafted and technically accomplished war film, it simply lacks anything larger to say about the political state of the country. They argue that by being intentionally vague about certain aspects of this fictional conflict, Garland is both–sidesing very real political issues.

While Civil War is by no means a perfect film, these reactions entirely miss the point of what Garland is actually trying to say and reveal a rather worrying trend in cultural criticism. To fully understand why, it’s best to dig into the text Garland has put forth rather than relying on second and third hand reactionary debates. 

Civil War centers on a group of four journalists: Kirsten Dunst’s battle–hardened Lee, Wagner Moura’s thrill–seeking Joel, Stephen McKinley Henderson’s veteran Sammy, and Cailee Spaeny’s precocious Jessie. Driving from New York to Washington D.C. before the capital falls to the secessionist forces, the group hopes to secure an interview with the President—who we learn has not done one in fourteen months. The mere fact that the film centers on a group of journalists (Sammy and Joel) and war photographers (Lee and Jessie)—instead of the actual participants in the civil war—tells us a lot about what Garland is trying to say with this film, which I think can be split into two buckets.

The first, and maybe most obvious, is Garland’s attempt to warn us of the dangers of polarization. Garland has always been a provocateur at heart: He wrote The Beach, 28 Days Later and the incredibly controversial third act of Sunshine (which rules, by the way, but that’s a discussion for another day). He’s not interested in blaming one side of the political spectrum for our current state; Instead, he’s probing at the fact that no one can talk to each other anymore. His decision to place California and Texas on the same side of the conflict is a way to both provoke a reaction and a litmus test to make his point for him. 

If you can’t imagine a scenario in which two states who may disagree with each other on political issues would be forced to band together by a fascist President, this movie probably isn’t for you. You probably would prefer a movie in which there is a clear right and a clear wrong—and the clear right just so happens to validate your previously held political beliefs. A lot of the major criticisms of the political nature of Civil War, in fact, sound like people wanting Garland to come on screen and tell them what he believes is right and wrong. Garland, however, is a much more sophisticated auteur who is willing, maybe even excited, to let his audiences wrestle with his work. Civil War is not an apolitical film as some have suggested; It is simply a film with complex politics coming out in a time when our culture promotes the flattening of any kind of political debate.

The choice to keep the precise political motives of all the participants in this fictitious civil war hidden is also a stylistic choice in and of itself. If you watch most Hollywood war films set anywhere else in the world, they usually do the exact same thing. Hollywood filmmakers are rarely, if ever, interested in getting into the weeds of clan or tribal warfare globally. They use war as a backdrop to tell stories of human bravery or cowardice—that’s exactly what Garland is doing. 

He’s more interested in telling a story about a group of journalists facing impossible circumstances than dissecting every hot button political debate in America. He could have told the exact same story right now but transposed it onto a real life conflict, say in Ukraine or in Gaza. By setting it in a near–future America, he is attempting to do exactly what Lee and the rest of the journalists in the film are: warning us that this kind of conflict, while all too common globally, is not far from reality here.

This gets us to the story Garland really wants to tell, one of a fascination with war photography, and by proxy his interest in war films. Garland’s father was a newspaper cartoonist, so much of his childhood was spent surrounded by journalists, which clearly influenced his complicated feelings that he’s working through. Some have suggested that Civil War is a love letter, and Garland is certainly in awe of their bravery and courage. There are numerous examples of this courage on display in the film, whether it be Lee, Joel, and Jessie embedding themselves with a group of soldiers early in the film or being the first ones into the fallen White House in the third act. 

However, Garland seems equally suspicious of the motivations of the people who can muster the courage to be this brave. At multiple points in the movie we see Joel’s eagerness, bordering on glee, at the violence occurring around him. He even remarks about how hard the gunfire in the distance is getting him at one point. His suspicious take on complicated human ego recurs throughout Garland’s filmography: just like Oscar Isaac and Domnhall Gleason’s characters in Ex Machina and Nick Offerman’s in Devs, the journalists in Civil War are portrayed as both brave and narcissistic. 

The focus on war photography also acts as a way for Garland to question his own motives in crafting this film. And make no mistake, the craft on display here is sensational. Garland strings together a series of tense encounters between the group of journalists and various groups of militants and non–militants in a way that few working today can. This movie is loud and immersive, signaling a step up for Garland in terms of his skill as a director. The structure of the film is somewhat reminiscent of Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece Apocalypse Now, another war film centered on a doomed journey. And that isn’t a mistake.

Garland has spent most of his press tour talking about, and making a delineation between, two different kinds of war films: the aforementioned Apocalypse Now and Elem Klimov’s 1985 masterpiece Come and See, a film centered on the horrors and war crimes committed by Nazi soldiers in Belarus. Garland has made the distinction that while Apocalypse Now is often understood as an anti–war film, it cannot truly be one due to how much it romanticizes the Vietnam War. The film certainly portrays the horror of the conflict, but it does so by cutting together beautiful vistas while some of the most entertaining and well–known songs of the past century play. Come and See, on the other hand, is not a beautiful film to look at. Klimov portrays violence in a more objective manner, allowing the film’s protagonist, a young boy, to witness horror after horror without exaggeration or romanticizing. 

Garland has claimed that he sought to make a movie more on the Come and See end of the spectrum, and in some cases he’s succeeded. The final shootout set inside the White House is incredibly violent and harrowing. However, Garland does also fall into some of the same traps as Coppola. He uses a series of montages and needle drops, most notably De La Soul’s “Say No Go,” in a way that echoes Coppola’s use of The Doors. Garland's apparent suspicion with the motives of war journalists, therefore, may really be a proxy for suspicion of himself. I don’t think he fully understands why he’s making this film and why he’s making it the way he is. Garland has stressed the necessary objectivity needed to be a good journalist, which I think can also be read as Garland being mad at himself for being unable to display this same level of objectivity in his filmmaking. No film can ever be truly anti–war because all films, even Come and See to some extent, romanticize war.  

It’s clear that the process of making this film, and perhaps some kind of failure he feels within himself with the finished product, has taken a toll on Alex Garland. He’s said that after Civil War, his fourth feature as director, he will be stepping away from the role for the foreseeable future, instead focusing on screenwriting and other creative pursuits. And despite all of its flaws, I hope Civil War isn’t his swan song. Garland is a unique voice in contemporary cinema and the movie world will be worse without him directing movies.