The new A24 movie Civil War is set in a perhaps not so far distant dystopian future, in which some states have seceded and then joined together to battle a U.S. government that won’t let them go. The film is seen through the eyes of a group of roving war reporters led by Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst), who has seen these horrors before around the world, just not in her home country. 

Her team’s mission: to capture the chaos on their bloody journey to Washington, D.C., to interview the president of the United States.

If you saw only the trailer of Civil War, though, you might get a false idea of the film. Its first impression, particularly for those on the right, brings to mind the trailer for the 2020 satirical action horror movie The Hunt, which showed sportsman elites literally hunting down MAGA-loving “deplorables.” But if you ignored the trailer and saw the film, as I did, it mocked progressives as much if not more than it did conservatives. It was a political movie, but it wasn’t picking sides, per se. National Review’s Kyle Smith even called it a “pro-Trump movie.” 

Civil War has received a similar initial reaction for its trailer, in which a man in fatigues holding an automatic rifle asks his captives, “What kind of American are you?” That scene seems to present the movie as Hollywood’s latest fantasy about how the Donald Trump and MAGA movement that gave America January 6 could potentially export that anarchy to the whole country, especially if Trump gets reelected. Or perhaps if he is not.

I thought this too. Then I saw the movie.

It turns out that that scene is the only one that could be likely perceived in that way. In the larger context of the film, the man in camouflage could also be compared to rabid Democrats eager to mete out the harshest sentences to January 6 suspects, likely basing their own concept of what constitutes a true American on behavior or political views they disagree with.

Progressives have been as quick as to make conservatives “the other” as conservatives have to progressives. That’s part of this film, but not what it’s truly about.

Civil War is about the stupidity of war.

Postwar conservatism grew in large part out of the reactions of men like Modern Age founder Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, and others of their generation to the utter brutality and inhumanity of World War II. They were not as concerned about who did what to whom and which flags got raised, but instead harshly rejected the idea that human beings should ever rise to that grotesque level of violence again.

A news reading near the beginning of Civil War reports on the Texas and California secessionist movements, along with an unsuccessful attempt by Florida to get the Carolinas to join them in doing the same. Secessionist movements do indeed exist in California and Texas, blue and red states respectively, and their advocates almost always say they want their state to leave the Union precisely to avoid the type of violence portrayed in the film. These different secessionist groups make up the insurgent Western Forces whom the United States is resisting in the film.

All of this is taken in by the group of war journalists, some veterans, one a novice, who travel throughout the country and document the chaos and rubble. They don’t appear to care about the politics of the war, and they don’t pick sides. They take pictures for the world to see.

And for the film’s viewers to see.

There is political commentary relevant to our time that litters this two-hour condemnation of war, but it’s all subtext or asides. When bartering with an armed gas station owner for fuel, Smith offers $300 for filling a half tank of their vehicle and two additional cans. She is told by the owner that $300 only buys them a sandwich. But when she tells them it is $300 in Canadian dollars, the man agrees to her offer. Obviously, rampant inflation might be a precursor to a civil war.

In their ultimate trek to try to interview the president (Nick Offerman), something no journalist had successfully done in years, a veteran journalist known only as Joel (Wagner Moura) says he can’t wait to ask, “Mr. President, what is your position on air strikes on Americans?” There is no indication if this happened before or after the war began, but is it certainly the kind of act that might lead to civil war.

Throughout, the press group is constantly surrounded by abandoned cars, burning buildings, and graffiti, much of it either cheering or insulting both Western Forces and the United States. But amid the sloganeering, the camera lingers on an underpass spray-painted “Go Steelers!” when the group is driving through Pittsburgh. This simple but standout moment captures what the director, Alex Garland (Ex Machina, 28 Days Later), is trying to impress on the audience by contrasting the war with what came before.

Civil War is a reminder that civil society shouldn’t be taken for granted and that after war begins, all the reasons it came to be seem far less important than the misery before you—especially in modern warfare. The urge to wage war will always be a human flaw, but you have to wonder whether all these new ways to kill people at higher rates are really any kind of progress. As Kirk wrote to his friend Bill McCann in 1942, “Apparently, it has been progress toward annihilation, an end to be accomplished, perhaps, by the improved atomic bomb? We have dealt more death and destruction in the space of ten years than the men of the Middle Ages, with their Devil, were able to accomplish in a thousand.”

The reporters in Civil War aren’t asking questions. In fact, when the twenty-three-year-old war reporter in training, Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), gets spooked and hesitates while chasing after shots, Smith tells her not to judge or even consider moral questions. Just take pictures. They’re not on the scene to intercede, but to record.

Without saying anything, though, the reporters are asking the one question, in their eyes and in their hearts, if not their mouths, that matters most: Why? Which is always the question, and it’s the one that not enough people ask until it is too late.