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Cultural Coding And Civil War

Cultural Coding And Civil War
The dishonest propaganda of Alex Garland's Civil War and cultural coding in films

When the trailer for Civil War was released in 2023, the reaction online was that Hollywood liberals were prepping their election-year propaganda, while others of a more conspiratorial bent claimed the film was predictive programming. In April 2024, the film was released to not much fanfare, not much outrage, or general buzz, and then swiftly sunk into the bottomless pit of consumed content wrung dry of its relevance.

Billionaire Psycho wrote an excellent piece on the film, explaining that director Alex Garland had essentially chickened out of confronting the societal problems and ideological schism that has wrought such profound division within American society. Then again, as Billionaire Psycho points out, if Garland had delivered a script that addressed both sides of the division in America, it would have been viewed by Hollywood and the liberal intelligentsia as ‘‘far-right propaganda.’’ and Garland’s career as a leading director in the industry would have run the risk of being euthanized.

With Garland playing it safe, then, Civil War is seen entirely from the perspective of America’s true heroes, the real consciousness of the nation: corporate journalists. You can giggle, but that’s the pitch. In this world, journalists are not enforcers of the status quo who spend their lives scrolling Xitter to satiate the incentives dangled before them by Globohomo; instead, they’re artistic bohemians out in the field, risking death in the name of uncovering truth and snapping that perfect shot of humanity under extreme duress. A world-weary Kirsten Dunst takes a plucky crew of journos and her Oscar-bait double chin through a series of set-pieces illustrating a war that is fought for reasons never explained, and by people it is impossible to feel any empathy for.

The film flops hard because none of us are trusted to have a political side to root for because to do so would raise questions Hollywood does not want to be raised, and so what we have is an America ruined by psychotics whose beliefs are largely irrelevant.

What we do get, however, is ‘‘coding’’.

I’ve recently begun noticing the adjective ‘‘coded’’ being used to describe imagery and media far more than I used to, and it fascinates me. The dictionary explanation of ‘‘coded’’ is:

converted into a code to convey a secret meaning.

"secret coded messages"

expressed in an indirect way.

"journalists made coded allusions to his deficiencies"

Garland’s Civil War may well recoil at delivering political exposition or having its characters reveal ideological or religious motives, but that does not mean it is not coded in insidious ways that betray its true intent.

Because the nature of coded messaging in media is implicit and reliant on its audience's intellectual and philosophical priors to be deciphered, a fierce cultural battle often erupts as to the nature of this or that piece of art or content. In recent years, mass entertainment has eschewed carefully coding media with an implicit meaning and instead delivered a leftist, postmodern sermon that has alienated huge swathes of the public.

The implicit became explicit, and the explicit swiftly becomes tedious in the way Sharon Stone is sexier fully clothed in Total Recall than in the semi-pornographic Basic Instinct.

I feel I should highlight here that a scene in Civil War features an out-and-out mass murdering redneck racist who interrogates the journalists and then casually shoots the foreigners in their group. He’s also in the process of dumping corpses into a mass grave. In this encounter, any ambiguity has left the building and we are once again merely being subjected to a progressive sermon. However, even here, we witness the imagery of corpses being dumped into a mass grave, and this, to a modern Western audience, is coded with Nazi, Holocaust, and World War II.

The journalists themselves are also flatteringly coded as intellectuals of a classic liberal hue; they’re better read, more cerebral, and subject to higher, more complex forms of ethics and morality than anyone else. This is not how journalists are but how they want to be seen. Everything is as subtle as a brick to the head, Garland is attempting to reformulate an implicit message to avoid the constraints he is under but is unable to.

Let us then investigate an implicit message that could have easily been woven into Civil War but which was not. In this hypothetical scene, the journalists enter a small town in America. A group of middle-aged white men leave the last warehouse in their dilapidated town and are jeered at and mocked by a car full of Latinos. The scene could last no longer than 25 seconds and play no further role in the plot. Yet, such a scene cannot be allowed because there’s a tacit admission that the white men have legitimate reasons to be fed up. Within the wider context of civil conflict, it’d be an admission of a legitimate political position.

The Michael Douglas character in Falling Down can no longer be allowed to exist in modern movies because the questions and the coding are dangerous to the dominant and hegemonic ideology. It is for this reason that Garland has had to embark on the moronic project of depicting a civil war without politics. One scene features a black man pinned down behind a column while being shot at by snipers on the upper floors of a nearby building. We are not informed which side of the conflict the black man is on, but by virtue of his being black and in the role of a victim, we assume he is on the ‘‘liberal’’ side of it. Shortly after, we see the snipers themselves unfeelingly executed. Media has trained our brains to think that this is how racists behave and are treated, and so what is coded is that the liberal faction has defeated a squad of the other faction, who are right-wing populists. At the same time, we’re informed that California and Texas are allies, deliberately running against what we know to be actual socio-political faultlines in America. It is a profoundly dishonest way to construct a narrative and feign neutrality.

Fundamentally, the question of implicit messaging within media relies on there being a common baseline or foundation of cultural agreement from which ideas, concepts, or even feelings can be broadcast. In the 1980s and, to a lesser extent, the 1990s, such a baseline foundation existed, and it is precisely this era that movie critic YouTube yearns to return to.

A film that is in many ways the polar opposite of Civil War is the 1983 comedy National Lampoon’s Vacation. Like Civil War, the classic Chevy Chase comedy also takes us on a tour of America. It is also coded with messaging commenting on America, except from an optimistic perspective. Firstly, how curious is it that Civil War is told entirely from the perspective of journalists, already a widely detested and distrusted class of people, and not from the perspective of an American Everyman, as National Lampoon’s does? Chase’s Clark Griswold is coded as the typical American family man, it is he who forms our baseline, or foundation, from which the narrative develops.

With the Griswold family firmly established as our center, we can then head off across America, knowing who and what our touchstones are. Thus in National Lampoon’s Vacation, we get to see wry commentary on the dangers of venturing into St Louis’s black ghettoes where your hubcaps will be stolen, but we can also take a trip to redneck (white trash implied) relatives in Kansas. The film does not lie to its audience by pretending there are no black ghettoes where it is dangerous to go, nor does it shirk from exploring and mocking the plight of rural white Americans.

In this way, outliers are folded back into the center of American identity and laid claim to: This is our America warts and all, and we love it.

Why can a 40-year-old comedy reveal politically incorrect truths about America, but a film literally about America descending into a civil conflict is reduced to playing a dishonest and cowardly dog whistle? Or, again, why are journalists at the heart of Civil War and not Clark Griswold? Why is the narrative baseline not the average hardworking American family man? The answer is that it can’t be because it assumes a normative foundation to the society that the current regime and its institutions are, in reality, at war with. The lens through which we must process the end of America belongs to the camera of a journalist, which is to say, the media. The media will be our guide, our foundation, and baseline, not the Griswolds, who’re now nothing more than corpses in a car at the side of a visually stunning CGI highway in a conflict they’re probably responsible for.

It is tempting to give Garland too much credence and posit the idea that his miserable, callous saga of war and violence is a meta-commentary on the insidious nature of media manipulation and narrative framing. If the centre is the media, the outliers become normal people. If the centre is true and good, then the fact of mass violence and barbarism must logically be the fault of the people themselves and not the media, which is honest, true, and virtuous. On the other hand, to depict the media as anything else would open up Garland to allegations that he was spreading misinformation and populist rhetoric. Thus, in many respects, the politics that formed Civil War’s vain attempt to be apolitical is the very politics sending America over the cliff of societal decay and malfunction.

The last act of Civil War takes us to Washington, DC, and a brutal assault on the White House. Naturally, a black woman shoots the cowering president dead and poses for the camera. Once more, the imagery of a black woman killing the white male president is coded as ‘‘progressive,’’ and so no ideological exposition is required.

Yet another layer of coding can be detected here in the blood-stained hyper-violence of the last act. Despite Joe Biden telling Trump voters with guns they’d need F-16s to take on the Washington establishment, progressives find themselves cast in the role of the rebels because they always have to be attacking the Death Star rather than sitting inside of it operating its weapons. The black female soldier shoots dead the president’s secretary despite her not only being unarmed but also being actively engaged in negotiating his surrender. The victorious Western Forces, as avatars of severe sadism and murder, are in being so inhumane, allowing progressives to feel  a jolt of catharsis that the Trumpian populists and the avatar of the great orange clown himself are butchered in a hail of bullets.

Despite the supposedly neutral stance that Garland frames his film, nobody on the American right would have felt jolts of dopamine in their brains upon witnessing the last act because they all saw through the coding. They all knew that they and their politics were being mown down. Just as it was they who were casually executed earlier, and it was they who were the racist redneck digging the mass graves.

And yet, so profoundly dishonest and cowardly is the framing of the film it even has to absolve itself of its own bias and partisan politics. Garland has managed to depict a war film where soldiers fight a civil war for reasons never stated while at the same time allowing himself an off-ramp of indifferent objectivity as he implicitly peppers his work with just enough signifiers to reveal himself to the actual establishment as a friend and not a foe.

He’s taking pot-shots at populists from behind his sofa.

Garland is straining against hard reality, an almost metaphysical force baring down on his film that he can never admit to, power.

An infinitely superior film to Civil War that also deals with stereotypes and America at war with itself is my favourite film, First Blood.

In the opening of First Blood, we, as the audience, bear witness to John Rambo going to visit a comrade in arms from Vietnam who has since died due to the carcinogens in Agent Orange. When Sherriff Teasle arrives to hassle Rambo, he needles him over his personal hygiene and says that wearing his army-issue jacket will insult the good people of Hope, his town. Sherriff Teasle is not just a bit of a bastard; he thinks Rambo is a trouble-causing hippy and a bum. Teasle incorrectly views Rambo as an enemy of small-town conservative America when, culturally, he’d be an ally and source of pride. In fact, the actual hippies have tormented and harassed Rambo because he was a fighting soldier in Vietnam. Rambo fought for America because he loves America, yet he finds himself socially ostracised because of it. Teasle’s misfire means his ostensible allies, small-town America, have also become his enemies.

The difference between First Blood and trash like Civil War is that it has the confidence and freedom to ask uncomfortable questions and address societal wounds that fester and ooze pus. Civil War fakes it; it pretends to be a ‘‘warning’’ when, in actuality, it’s just more diesel spurted onto the fire.

Where Rambo says, ‘‘I want our country to love us as much as we love it; that’s what I want!’’. Civil War smirks and replies:

‘‘You don’t have a country. Corporate journalists do!’’.

*Listen to my full Rambo breakdown on our Classic Movies stream here

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