'Civil War' envisions a too-near future : Pop Culture Happy Hour The new film Civil War depicts a contemporary America torn apart by a military conflict between the federal government and an alliance of secessionist states. Directed by Alex Garland (Ex Machina), the film follows a small band of journalists led by Kirsten Dunst's jaded war photographer. They embark on a harrowing journey to the heart of the conflict, encountering brutality and bloodshed along the way.

'Civil War' envisions a too-near future

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The new film "Civil War, depicts contemporary America torn apart by a military conflict between the federal government and an alliance of secessionist states. A small band of journalists, led by Kirsten Dunst's jaded war photographer, embark on a harrowing journey to the heart of the conflict, encountering brutality and bloodshed along the way. I'm Glen Weldon, and today we're talking about "Civil War" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR FROM NPR. Joining me today is NPR politics correspondent Danielle Kurtzleben. Hey, Danielle.


WELDON: Welcome back. Also with us is writer and critic Walter Chaw. Hey, Walter.

WALTER CHAW: Good morning.

WELDON: And rounding out the panel is film critic and senior film programmer at the Jacob Burns Film Center, Monica Castillo. Hey, Monica.


WELDON: Hello. Let's get to it. In "Civil War," Kirsten Dunst plays Lee, a famous war photographer hardened by the violence she's seen abroad, and, more recently, in America, where a civil war rages on. Along with her colleague Joel, played by Wagner Moura, and Sammy, played by Stanley McKinley Henderson (ph), she sets out on a dangerous road trip to Washington, D.C. They're covering the war as the secessionist factions, including an alliance between Texas and California, push towards the White House.

Lee also reluctantly agrees to allow a young aspiring photographer named Jessie to join them. She's played by Cailee Spaeny. Writer-director Alex Garland hints at the causes of the conflict, but the film seems more concerned with capturing the brutality and cruelty of war, especially war taking place on American soil and the ways that journalists covering such a conflict would find ways to survive, both physically and emotionally.

"Civil War" is Alex Garland's fourth film as a director. He previously made "Ex Machina," "Annihilation" and "Men." "Civil War" is in theaters now. Walter, kick us off. You saw this a while ago. What did you think?

CHAW: I really loved it. I really loved it. And I loved it even more the more I had time to think about it, honestly. I think it's the kind of movie that, for me anyway, needed to seep in. I needed to marinate in its juices for a while. It reminded me of a movie called "Medium Cool" by Haskell Wexler, in that it's more about the journey of war photographers and the question of truth and documenting history. That movie covered the Chicago Democratic convention that went haywire, and it got actual footage from it. And long passages of "Civil War" reminded me of that film. It felt almost improvisational, like they were going through and discovering things along the way, ways that our country has been balkanized and subtly changed.

And I just felt a sense of uncanniness and sadness, and really got me to a place where I started wondering if truth still existed, if the notion of truth as an objective arbiter of our reality was even a possible thing anymore after all of these years of, you know, fake news and fake this and people distrusting the evidence of their own eyes. It seems like "1984" has come true. And so, you know, I really loved how sober it was in that respect. And the more I sat with it, the more I think it (inaudible) - that, in particular, sat well with me

WELDON: OK. Well, Monica, you also saw this a while ago. How did it sit with you?

CASTILLO: I wish it sat as well as it did with Walter. I did not have that reaction. It's kind of trying to keep things vague in details, you know, sort of ambiguous. It's wanting to be apolitical but being about a political topic and using some of the language and things like that. I mean, my head just kept asking more questions. I think for something like "Medium Cool," I knew the context of which, like, that film is taking place. I knew where the setting was, where the politics were at that time. We don't have those answers. I don't feel like the world-building gave me enough details to be able to enjoy and plug in on that story and really, you know, enjoy it the way that other folks may be able to.

KURTZLEBEN: How about you, Danielle? You are a journalist, so where are you sitting with this movie right now?

KURTZLEBEN: I do feel that I need to marinate more. This film, I believe it requires marinating.


KURTZLEBEN: I found it - and I mean this in a very good way - I found it deeply upsetting, harrowing, visceral. I mean, it's - and fully believable. I mean, I was watching it and feeling, like I said, upset, just...


KURTZLEBEN: There's a moment where Kirsten Dunst - by the way, she's incredible in it. Kirsten Dunst plays a war photographer in this film, and she talks about covering foreign conflict zones. And she says something to the effect of, every time I sent a photo home from a war zone, it was a warning. I was trying to warn people, don't do this. That really seems to me like the thesis statement of the film.

And yes, the movie, I'll be honest, I saw the trailer, and I thought, God, that's heavy-handed, I'm going to hate this. No. This movie is beautifully made and beautifully acted. And I think it accomplishes its goals in trying to be harrowing and visceral. But I came away wondering, why did I sit through that? I mean, even if it was beautiful, even if it was well done. I mean, if the point is it could happen here, and war is bad, I fully agree. And that really upsets me. But I'm not sure I needed to have 9,000 jumpscares (laughter) and just have my heart ache for two hours.

CHAW: What I really appreciated about it, though, was the idea that there are still people who care about truth, who care about it enough to put their lives on the line to collect it. Whenever I read about people like Lee Miller or Robert Capa or James Nachtwey, these war photographers that were there for the liberation of Dachau, that were there for Vietnam, going to these places, there's that sense of ambiguity, and there's a sense of not knowing what the future holds even for them in that very moment. But they go there because they believe that the things that they document will matter.


KIRSTEN DUNST: (As Lee Smith) We record so other people ask. Want to be a journalist? That's the job.


DUNST: (As Lee Smith) What?

MCKINLEY HENDERSON: (As Sammy) Back off.

CHAW: The movie really kind of rooted out my nihilism - the fact that, you know, the bad guys get away with everything. And yet here are these people in this film, for however nihilistic it feels or unpleasant, and it does, it feels all of those things, here are these people that it's following, these war photographers who believe that it matters to be there, to document these moments because the evidence that they collect will matter at some point if it doesn't matter in this moment. And that's strangely bracing to me.

KURTZLEBEN: I would say - I totally get what you're saying as well. I - it strikes me as sad-funny because the movie cemented my nihilism to some degree...


KURTZLEBEN: ...Because one of the notable things about this movie to me is, like, the journalists are the complicated heroes of this movie, and you see them out there just chasing truth, chasing the photo, chasing the story. I've never been in a conflict zone, but yes, all feels true to life. Also, they are very much bubble-wrapped from the effects of their reporting.

The only - that I recall - incident of anybody talking about consuming news is the - a woman in a shop who tells them, yeah, from based on what I see on the news, I just try to stay out of it. And we over and over hear about family members back home who pretend the civil war isn't happening. And that got me in the gut of a thing that, you know, I feel when I'm out at a Trump rally or wherever going, what is this story going to do?


KURTZLEBEN: And this movie, I'm not even sure it's intentional - I hope it is. But I mean, like, really kind of subtly gets at, why are these people doing this? Is what they're doing changing anything? Yes, you can look at them as heroes, but are they? I don't know. I have job feelings now (laughter). I'm not sure what to do.

WELDON: Yeah, yeah. See, that's so interesting because, again, Walter, to your point, in the abstract, yes, this is a heartening film about people who strongly believe in what they're doing. And to your point, Danielle, sometimes what they're doing can be called an addiction. So maybe there's some dark purpose to it as well. But I kind of have been coming down on team Monica, I think, because I felt it hovering between wanting to be an urgent warning cry, this blistering screed against authoritarianism. Right?


WELDON: And in execution ended up kind of both sides-y, this is what happens when we don't communicate...


WELDON: ...Disingenuous wet noodle. I read the press materials after I saw the film, and this stood out to me. For all its radicalism, Garland simply hopes that viewers enter with an open mind, leave without feeling alienated, and perhaps consider our own political predicament within this context. You can't have all those things, man.


WELDON: I mean, leave without feeling alienated is what struck out to me.

KURTZLEBEN: Thank you.

WELDON: Because if you're shooting for relevance to comment on current events, shouldn't you risk alienating that section of your audience that you're ostensibly trying to warn us about? Shouldn't they feel specifically implicated, called out? Not just this is war is bad, and we're all guilty, right, Monica?

CASTILLO: I was dying for this movie to say something more than just war is bad. I mean, you know, I really wanted it to go further, to explore, like, the potential political implications or even just explain why the civil war that we're watching right now happened at all. I know it's kind of interesting to just jump into the deep end, but war from nothing? That feels very strange to me.

WELDON: And I get the impulse behind that - right? - because you don't want to preach to the choir. You don't want to be hamfisted. You don't want to just...


WELDON: ...Do nothing but reassure your audience that they're absolutely right and they can be smug about it because that is the trap that the Adam McKay film "Don't Look Up" fell into back in 2021. That was the very overt climate change analogy about a comet colliding with Earth.

CHAW: Yes.

WELDON: You don't want to do that.

KURTZLEBEN: Yes. I thought about "Don't Look Up" this whole movie. "Don't Look Up" is one of the worst movies I've ever seen, hands down. I detested that film. But part of it is because, like, yeah, even if you agree with "Don't Look Up" - and, like, yeah, I agree, climate apocalypse is coming, and it's scary - you don't want to hear someone yell at you for two hours about it. It just gets tiresome - right? - even if you agree.


KURTZLEBEN: And this movie takes the opposite tack.


KURTZLEBEN: It stays vague, ambiguous about what caused the war. And on the one hand, I like ambiguity in a movie like this because the movie is presuming that you are smart enough to sit and think about it, that you are smart enough to draw connections, you are smart enough to take away what you're going to take away. But I would argue there's a happy medium to be reached.


KURTZLEBEN: Maybe I don't even argue there's a happy medium to be reached. I don't know if this movie could gesture more pointedly at current events and still be watchable. I think it's as good as it could have been.

CASTILLO: Oh yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: If it had been a sermon, it would have been worse. But this is not - I still don't find this treatment of the subject optimal, I guess.

CHAW: To your point though, Danielle, I really agree with a lot of what everyone's saying is that we do know that it's a three-term president.


CHAW: We do see certain costuming choices. We do see...


CHAW: ...Certain language and references to Charlottesville, for instance. But I think the danger that we fall into is that we all bring in a lot of stuff. Like, I am so terrified. You know, the stakes are high for people who look like me. And this movie actually clarifies exactly the kind of peril that Asian Americans might be entering an American civil war.


CHAW: I don't know that there's an answer sort of to your larger point, Danielle. It'll work like this because often things that agree with you the most do the most harm to your side.

WELDON: Exactly.

CHAW: Because all of a sudden the other side is like, look at - all they are is these proselytizing, these hysterical...


CHAW: ...These whatever. And, you know, I would say this movie doesn't deal with that. It says, look, we don't actually know what's going to happen in November, just like "Medium Cool" didn't know. So we're kind of in the middle of this period of intense fear and paranoia and distrust of the other. And here's a film that's really about, OK, here here are these people who believe that they can make a difference. These people aren't giving up. And I look at that, and it's a good reminder for me, if nobody else, that people do care, that our voices actually do matter and we could maybe change one person's mind and then two people's minds just by telling the truth or documenting what we believe is the truth. You know, here's a movie that doesn't spoon-feed me an easy solution but rather says, have you ever considered that - without saying both sides are equal but saying that we are responsible a little bit for the balkanization of our country? How do we reconstruct this? How do we come back from this?


CHAW: I've never seen a way through. These people believe there is one even if they don't say what it is. It could be as simple as taking a picture at the right time.

WELDON: I think this film is at its strongest when it is about the immediacy of war, when it's about survival, when somebody gets pinned down that you don't know what side it's on. The soldiers make a point in that very impressive scene. Like, it doesn't matter who is on the other side. They're trying to kill me. I'm going to try to kill them. My issue, I think - and I think your issue, too - is when it clings to that notion, even when it widens out - there's a very harrowing scene featuring the journalist being interrogated by a soldier. And it's trying to say - I think the scene is trying to say that in the day-to-day reality of war, ideologies and politics kind of go away. And what emerges is the worst of humanity - like, basic human evils like racism. But if that's the case, then why do we have all this hand-waving about our political moment at all? I mean, the film opens with the president of the United States composing a speech to not only falsely declare victory but to declare the biggest victory in the history of the world.


WELDON: And that's not even coded. We are meant to see that as Trump. There's no other way. It's impossible not to. Right, Monica? Am I - come on.

CASTILLO: No, no, no, I'm totally on the same page. I mean...


CASTILLO: They shoot Nick Offerman a little bit like Trump. The stuff that he says is very much like Trump. There are, you know, mentions to Antifa and the Antifa massacre. There's all these different little codes and things like that to, like, bring up the political angle. I will say something nice about the film. I am mostly negative. I really hung on to the mentorship roles that the different characters get to share over the course of the film because when you are covering those really intense situations, sometimes your colleagues are the only people who have your back.


CASTILLO: Some of the stuff that Cailee Spaeny's character goes through as a young cub reporter, you know, kind of covering her first war and the tips and tricks and coaching that Lee gives her - it's just so important. And I really - that was my favorite part of the film. So I wish maybe we spent a bit more time with that versus all the different political scenes.

CHAW: Yeah. I really love that you mentioned the mentorship aspect of it because, Danielle, you asked the question of who's listening. She was listening as a little girl.


CHAW: We're watching the stuff in the world right now where journalists are being assassinated in the dozens. But then there's always more. There's always another person who will say, I'm probably going to die today, but I'm going to document this thing. And I don't know what it's going to - who I'm talking to, but I believe that there's importance to this mission.


CHAW: You know, it reminds me of Alex Garland's - in his library of "Annihilation" more than anything else. You know, I didn't...


CHAW: ...Find it to be much of a war movie. I don't think it wants to be a political movie beyond the larger political question of, why do we keep killing each other, and how do we how do we come out from this, and who chronicles...


CHAW: ...The wreckage? And that's all interesting and important stuff, I think. How can we find that middle ground that we were talking about?

KURTZLEBEN: I want to back up to one point that Monica made about Nick Offerman as president. I think the casting of him as a president who is Trump-coded is absolutely genius. It reminded me of the movie "Promising Young Woman." In that movie, Emerald Fennell casts sweet guys like Bo Burnham and casts them to be, like, low-key and then not-so-low-key creeps. Similarly, we have the lovable libertarian from "Parks And Rec" who everybody liked before from the TV who is now this authoritarian. I thought that felt like an intentional wink and a very smart wink to make.

I apologize for playing dartboard here, but I have one other point that gets back to what Walter was talking about in terms of these journalists being heroes and pursuing the truth at all costs. We haven't really mentioned that this movie is a road movie. It is these reporters trying to get to Washington, D.C., and sort of the things they see along the way. And one of the things they see is they stop at a gas station, and young cub reporter Cailee Spaeny - what she saw was two looters who have been tortured and are kind of restrained. And they have been tortured, and a guy follows her out back.

And the tension in that scene - that scene captures to me better than pretty much the rest of the movie, like, why journalists do what they do because Cailee Spaeny is wondering, oh, God. What do we do? Do we help these people? And Kirsten Dunst says to this young soldier who is very proud of having strung up these looters, hey. Let me take your picture. Like, you own this, sir. You did this. You stand proudly there, and I'm going to take your dang picture. That is why journalists do what they do. And I - that is the scene that's going to stick with me from this movie.

CASTILLO: I will say, you know, the two movies that I really love of Alex Garland's is "Annihilation" and "Ex Machina." And two of those benefit, I think, from being in these sci-fi worlds where he really got to get creative, where he really did get to kind of remove himself from our day-to-day what we're going through, what we're dealing with. I almost kind of wish this movie could have taken place a little bit more farther removed, seen a little bit more or done a little bit more with that without all the different political baggage that comes with trying to talk about today. One other thing that I did want to bring up - and I don't know if anyone else felt this way, was I just thought the needle drops were so...


CASTILLO: ...It felt more like a record scratch than actually complimenting the mood or building the mood. All of a sudden, it felt like a crescendo, like, oh, my God, whose stereo just went off? It just felt counter to whatever emotion was on screen. And maybe that's the feeling he's trying to elicit, but every time it just took me out of the movie.

WELDON: If the goal was to be disorienting, mission accomplished.



WELDON: And I think the goal was probably to be disorienting, in some cases.

CASTILLO: Oh, yeah.

WELDON: Well, you heard what we have to say. You can tell it is a really fascinating film to talk about. "Civil War" is in theaters now. Up next, What Is Making Us Happy This Week?

Now it is time for our favorite segment of this week and every week, What Is Making Us Happy This Week? Monica Castillo, kick us off.

CASTILLO: What's making me happy this week is the movie "Riddle Of Fire," which premiered at Cannes last year. It's a neo-fairy tale that's, like, really scrappy, set in Wyoming, and it's these three little kids that, you know, just want to play video games, but their mom gives them a quest to build a pie for her because she's not feeling well. And then, only then, can they play their video games. So, of course, this launches an epic little adventure. They have to get very specific ingredients. And it's so charming. It looks marvelous. It's, I think, shot on 16 millimeter. It looks like nothing else out there right now. I'm just fully in love with this movie, and I hope other people will get the chance to check it out.

WELDON: All right, so that is "Riddle Of Fire," and it's available on VOD now. Thank you, Monica. Danielle Kurtzleben, what is making you happy this week?

KURTZLEBEN: What's making me happy this week is a show on Apple+. It is called "Palm Royale."


KURTZLEBEN: It stars Kristen Wiig, Allison Janney. Carol Burnett is in it. It is a bunch of women who are not in their 20s and 30s but just having a blast. It is frothy. It is fizzy. It is the opposite of "Civil War."

WELDON: (Laughter).

KURTZLEBEN: It is good, silly fun. Kristen Wiig plays a woman in the - this takes place in the late 1960s, a woman who wants to be a part of an exclusive club in Palm Beach called the Palm Royale, and she wants to fit in with all the rich society mavens. And there's a subplot about a women's consciousness-raising group. Oh, I didn't even mention Laura Dern. Laura Dern...


KURTZLEBEN: ...Is the leader of that group.

WELDON: And her wig.

KURTZLEBEN: And her wig, that's fair. It's silly, frothy fun with excellent costumes. I am always rooting for both Kristen Wiig and Allison Janney. They're two of my favorites. Is it great TV? I don't know yet, but it's a blast.

WELDON: It's a blast. And that is "Palm Royale" on Apple TV+. Thank you very much, Danielle Kurtzleben. Walter Chaw, what is making you happy this week?

CHAW: Well, I am obsessed with this coffee table book called "Alfred Hitchcock Storyboards." It's compiled by Tony Lee Moral. It's literally that's all it is. You open it up and you can see the storyboards for the attack of the birds on the gas station. You can see the push zoom effect from "Vertigo" as it's sketched out. And it's sort of like this holy grail that I've been looking for for years of just one place where his storyboards would be collected. He was infamous for, you know, saying that once I finish planning it out and drawing the storyboards, the movie's already done. You know, shooting it is just a formality. I've been using it as a treat for myself. Every time I finish something I don't want to finish, I get to go look at the next film. And, yeah, it's great to lose yourself in it. It's "Alfred Hitchcock Storyboards" by Tony Lee Moral.

WELDON: Thank you very much, Walter. Great pick. I just ordered it. So (laughter) your N of one is successful 'cause that's...

KURTZLEBEN: Wait, you just ordered it just this moment hearing him talk about it? Oh, my God.

WELDON: Just this second, I just did. Yes, as a matter of fact.

CASTILLO: Oh, wow.

WELDON: Yeah. Well done, Walter. Thank you very much. What's making me happy this week? "The People's Joker" is a film you may have heard about when its planned extended premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival was abruptly reduced to one midnight showing. It stars Vera Drew, who directed and co-wrote it with Bri LeRose. It is the origin story of the Joker if the Joker was a trans woman with a very funny narco-socialist take on pretty much everything, but especially, weirdly, the status of contemporary stand-up comedy, and if Gotham City was a combination of crowd-sourced greenscreen backdrops and animation.

It is also a queer coming-of-age tale and a rom-com with a very thorough knowledge and jokes about deep, deep Batman lore, especially the Joel Schumacher films and voice cameos from members of L.A.'s alt-comedy scene. As you might imagine, from that description, everything about this film makes the megacorporate owners of IP like the Joker and Gotham City and Batman very nervous. When it was pulled from Tiff, most of us figured we would never get to see it. But somehow it has managed to secure an extremely limited theatrical release this month and next. That is "The People's Joker" in theaters now.

And that is what is making me happy this week. And if you want links for what we recommended, plus some more recommendations, sign up for our newsletter at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. That brings us to the end of our show. Danielle Kurtzleben, Monica Castillo, Walter Chaw, thank you so much for being here.

CHAW: Thank you for having me.

CASTILLO: Thank you for having me.

KURTZLEBEN: It was a blast, as always.

WELDON: This episode was produced by Hafsa Fathima and edited by Mike Katzif. Our supervising producer is Jessica Reedy, and Hello Come In provides our theme music. Thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. I'm Glen Weldon, and we'll see you all next week.


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