Published On: Sat, Apr 13th, 2024

Civil War Director Alex Garland Explains Why The Movie’s Gunshots Sound So Horrifying [Exclusive Interview]


“Civil War” feels like to me a historical film from an alternate universe, where it expects you already understand the basics of the war, kind of like how “Saving Private Ryan” and “Dunkirk” don’t need to tell you how World War II started. Do you view it this way?

I think you could extrapolate how this came about from bits of information contained within the film, personally. I also think that the film doesn’t come out of nowhere, it comes out of a sense of anxiety about the nature of populist politics, division, and extremist behavior as well as extremist thinking, and I think that’s pretty shared, actually. I think a lot of people feel that, and they have their own internal sense that they already arrive with about why that exists. Now, people might not agree that their versions or account of how that might exist might differ, but the anxiety I think is quite broadly shared, so I’m also relying on people’s own sense of a situation as well as things that are marked within the film itself.

I think one of the more surprising things about the film is that some people, myself included, expected the premise to lead to more political grandstanding, but instead the film exists in an almost … I don’t want to say neutral place, but a place where the suggestion is that once the violence starts, once the bullets are flying, the reasons don’t matter as much because people are dying. Was that always your intention — that once the war starts, political intent no longer matters?

It’s partly that. That’s definitely part of it. I think it’s true that sometimes combat, it loses its reasons to exist quite quickly and then becomes just about things like staying alive, or not being killed, or killing the person who’s trying to kill you, and it can just fold down into that state. But there’s something else, actually, on a personal level there’s something else, which is really to do with journalism, and it’s to do with — and this is a product partly of me being middle-aged, I think, but it’s to do with an old-fashioned form of journalism, which was reporting, and bias in the terms that you mean it, which I think grandstanding implies bias. That was not permitted within a certain kind of news reporting as an ideological position. The ideology being connected to a belief within journalism that journalism needed to be trusted. If it was overtly propagandist, it would be defeating its own aims, and its aims were societal.

It was to be a check and a balance and holding a government to account, and in order to hold a government to account when a government is corrupt — which governments will do, they will at times be very corrupt — in order to hold them to account, you have to be trusted. That has certainly been eroded. It’s been eroded because it’s been under attack deliberately by politicians who seek to erode it for their own reasons. I think also social media has accelerated and changed the terms and the space in which journalism sits, but it’s also because many journalistic institutions have completely abdicated that responsibility and have tilted hard towards bias, which means tilting hard towards propaganda. They do that because they’re trying to maintain an audience, and the audience needs to be maintained as a relationship with advertising, so money. A consequence of that — there are various consequences, but one of them is they might be trusted by the choir they’re preaching to, but they’re not trusted by any of the other choirs, and so a generalized sense of distrust in journalism starts to exist.

That concerns me. I don’t like it. I grew up around journalists. I know they can be spiky or conflicted or compromised or any number of different things, but that we really need them. There’s a difference between the role they play and what they might be like as individuals, they’re just not the same thing. I want to trust journalists. The film attempts to function like old-fashioned reporters and, in a way, what old-fashioned reporters would do — not that they don’t exist anymore, they do, it’s just they exist surrounded by this noise, which diminishes their traction. What they would do is, in a sense, say, “This is what I observed.” Then, it would be up to the reader in the old days, or the viewer, to take their own meaning from that, but what they didn’t do was distrust what the journalist was saying they observed. Do you see what I mean?


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