Politics

Give Me Liberty or Give Me … What?

If the American experiment finally decides to call it quits, how might a national breakup begin?

Perhaps California moves toward secession after the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down the state’s strict gun control measures. Or Texas rebels when disputes over abortion laws grow deadly and the state’s National Guard remains loyal to the second Texan republic. Or a skirmish over the closure of a local bridge by federal inspectors escalates into a standoff between a beloved sheriff and a famous general, and the rest of the country takes sides. Or it’s the coordinated bombing of state capitols timed to the 2028 presidential transition, with right-wing militias and left-wing activists blaming one another.

In other words: It’s not you, it’s me hating you.

These scenarios are not of my own creation; they all appear in recent nonfiction books warning of an American schism. The secessionist impulses take shape in David French’s “Divided We Fall,” which cautions that Americans’ political and cultural clustering risks tearing the country apart. (French published it before becoming a Times columnist in 2023.) The statehouse explosions go off in Barbara F. Walter’s “How Civil Wars Start,” which notes that when democratic norms erode, opportunistic leaders can more easily aggravate the ethnic and cultural divides that end in violence. The Battle of the Bridge is one of several possible Sumter moments in Stephen Marche’s “The Next Civil War,” which contends that our great divorce would flow from irreconcilable differences over what America stands for.

These authors offer examples of what could happen, not predictions of what will. Their point is that our politics and culture are susceptible to such possibilities. “The crisis has already arrived,” Marche writes. “Only the inciting incidents are pending.”

It is precisely the absence of inciting incidents that makes the writer-director Alex Garland’s much-debated new film, “Civil War” (its box-office success resulting in part from the multitude of newspaper columnists going to see it), such an intriguing addition to this canon. We never learn exactly who or what started the new American civil war, or what ideologies, if any, are competing for power. It’s a disorienting and risky move, but an effective one. An elaborate back story would distract from the viewer’s engagement with the war itself — the bouts of despair and detachment, of death and denial — as lived and chronicled by the weary journalists at the center of the story.

Even the choice of journalists as the film’s protagonists creates an additional layer of remove, especially because, weirdly, these journalists rarely discuss the origins of the conflict or question its politics, even among themselves. (“We record so other people ask,” a veteran photographer reminds her protégée.) The story is built around their travels from New York to Washington, where they hope to score one last presidential interview before the capital falls.

“Civil War” is a road trip movie, if your trip occurs somewhere between the dislocation of “Nomadland” and the dystopia of “The Road.” If you’re trying to see the national monuments before they turn to rubble. If stopping for gas involves Canadian currency and scenes of torture. If stadium camps and mass graves have become standard features of America the beautiful.

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