Image courtesy of A24. 

Hot dogs. Cherry pie. Baseball. What do these things have in common?

They’re American, of course.

But what does that mean?

In Alex Garland’s new speculative action film Civil War, America as we know it has dissolved into factions engaged in a bloody military conflict. Texas and California have seceded and allied against the federal government. Despite the president’s assurances, the secessionist Western Forces, composed of an allied Texas and California, are winning the war. To document the events, veteran journalists Lee (Kirsten Dunst), Joel (Wagner Moura) and Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) team up to embark on a dangerous road trip through the battle-torn country. Their destination is Washington D.C., a capital under siege, where Lee and Joel hope to photograph and interview the chief executive before his administration is violently cut short. They’re joined on this mission by Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), a young photographer whose dreams of becoming a war journalist are shockingly realized throughout the course of the film as she’s exposed to extreme violence and unspeakable horrors.

Civil War is a war epic, but the film doesn’t just linger on the rockets’ red glare or the bombs bursting in air. Instead, the film focuses on smaller scenes of war: a bombed-out JCPenney store, a town with snipers patrolling its roofs, a crashed helicopter. Even the limited combat in the first two acts is sporadic, and lacks context. At one point, a camouflaged marksman with chipped nail polish gives a juicy quote while pulling the trigger on an unseen assailant of unknown allegiance. Later, the journalists pass by corpses hanging from a bridge, tagged with graffiti: “Go Steelers!” There’s constant confusion in the film about who’s on what side, and what the sides even are, beyond the proverbial “them” and “us.” The film suggests that the loyalist government has subverted the Constitution and constructed a pseudo-fascist state, but the actual “politics” of the film remain somewhat nebulous. Ultimately, questions of loyalty and allegiance are brushed aside: the photos speak for themselves.

Civil War is a film about witnessing and documenting. War is sensory overload, yet the protagonists find poignant and devastating moments to capture. Click: a soldier bleeds out as his comrade screams for help. Click: prisoners are executed, hoods over heads. Click: Lee in a dress, smiling ever-so-slightly. The film’s use of sound is just as effective in conveying the confusion and chaos of war. Gunfire is deafening. Soldiers’ code might as well be another language. Even the cameras are loud, almost like guns in the journalists’ hands, yet in some aspects they seem even more powerful than firearms. Guns kill, and cameras immortalize. Civil War is the uncommon film that puts journalism and its tenets centerfold. The film highlights the difficulty of reaching an apathetic public determined to shut out the apocalypse unfolding around them. Meanwhile, even the journalists struggle  to uphold the sanctity of the truth while also hunting for gunfire so they can get “the shot” (often getting themselves shot in the process).

Garland demonstrates a willingness to take on tough political topics in nuanced and unexpected ways. In one hauntingly memorable scene, a soldier played by scene-stealer Jesse Plemons (Killers of the Flower Moon) asks the protagonists, “What kind of American are you?” The journalists sputter as Plemons itches his nose, itches the trigger on his rifle. Our protagonists, unarmed, are at this man’s mercy. The question seems simple to Plemons, one that, should he dislike the answer, comes with the reply of a 5.56 round to the chest. He’s filling a mass grave – what's a few more bodies piled up in the name of Uncle Sam? The film’s blithe skewering of American nationalism in this scene haunts the rest of the film. I didn’t even realize until after the movie ended that the bodies in the grave resembled an American flag.

The film’s climax takes place as Washington falls to the Western Forces. A missile takes out the Lincoln Memorial, while tracer fire lights up the night sky around the Washington Monument. A black helicopter hovers over a street like an angel of death, chaingun screaming as it delivers judgment to all the sinners. The White House is sieged, gunfire erupting in the West Wing. In its final thirty minutes, Civil War delivers on its promise of an America reduced to ash. Hot dogs. Cherry pie. Baseball. What do these things have in common?

The answer is nothing, because, as Civil War proves, there’s nothing sacred about America.