When Charlottesville was the front lines

Alex Garland’s Civil War puts the front lines of his titular conflict in Charlottesville. The problem is that fact was already stranger than his fiction.

Why Charlottesville? I am asked this often by people still trying to understand why the sleepy central Virginia college town became the site of the largest white supremacist rally in two generations, why it was the location of the first domestic terror attack committed in the name of our sitting President. In the nearly seven years since a thousand white supremacists and neo-Nazis invaded my home city – the last six of which I’ve spent in a self-imposed exile in Berlin for my safety – I’ve wrestled with the question. No more. I’m pleased to announce I’ve found the answer: Charlottesville is a mythology.

Romulus and Remus suckled the she-wolf and Rome was born; the Gods looked down from Mount Olympus on the Achaeans. America is the last great empire built on a pantheon. I’ve spent this last half decade aiming a queer eye at European and American cultures alike, the contrast between them showing how clearly and uncritically Americans embrace the epic nature of their lives. Athletes are warriors setting off on an impossible quest, every election is democracy’s last great stand. We are the heroes of our own stories, each of us Odysseus in our way, and our demigods, the Founding Fathers, find themselves nibbling at the periphery of every tale.

The most revered among them is none other than Thomas Jefferson, whose Charlottesville home, Monticello, graced the back side of the nickel from 1938 until 2003. American schoolchildren, at least in my youth, were taught Jefferson as a thinker and a polymath, the most brilliant among the men who created our American system. He has a memorial along the Potomac, his Monticello a National Historical Landmark, and his academical village, the top-tiered University of Virginia, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the sine qua non of Charlottesville’s culture and economy. Jefferson – worth mentioning that he sired several children after repeatedly raping young Sally Hemings, one of the enslaved girls he owned – endures as our Hercules.

Charlottesville’s doings with Presidents took a sabbatical after Jefferson and James Madison, whose overlooked Montpelier estate sits only a short drive out of town, eventually died. It was almost two centuries later that Charlottesville would reemerge in the nation’s mythology. By now you know the story: Neo-nazis marched into town, committed a staggering amount of violence in an attempt to inflame a race war, committed a fatal terror attack, and left town just as easily as they came. Donald Trump, then POTUS, said there were “very fine people on both sides.” And a couple years later, Joe Biden launched his presidential campaign with the words, “Charlottesville, Virginia” and referenced what he called the Battle for the Soul of the Nation, moving words set against videos of the tiki-torchlit violence from that August night in 2017. (A video that, for the sake of disclosure, showed yours truly being beaten up by white supremacists).

The jury is still out – literally – on what it means that a President repeatedly finds violent white supremacist mobs marching in his name. It may be that Charlottesville is the alpha and omega of our nation, a city that bookends the story of American democracy. It sure seems that way in Alex Garland’s Civil War, a film that mentions its name several times as the “front lines” of the titular domestic conflict. For the first half of the film, Charlottesville is the distant, mythical, unreachable goal paid for in blood and trauma. There’s something fitting to that. In Charlottesville we know blood and trauma.

The problem with A24’s latest offering is that despite its title and its ostensible storyline, it’s not actually about a civil war. There’s a lot in the movie to unpack – the anachronistic, aspiring Gen-Z photojournalist who only shoots with black and white film; the sniper with rainbow nail polish; Jesse Plemons’ brief-but-outstanding performance that ultimately leaves the viewer no richer in comprehension – but an actual understanding of war is not among them, no matter how deeply Garland seems to try. There’s a bit of a meta-narrative here: Garland wants you to feel, he presents shocking scenes that ought to induce a visceral feeling of justice and in/humanity, but he gives you nothing to understand the horrors by. I left the film wondering if the PTSD I developed from what I saw of war and terror has neutered my sense of empathy. But everyone I talked to felt the same. Their reactions were a punctuated, “huh.”

Garland’s omissions are so obvious as to distract from the film. The opening sequence flashes sequences of on-the-ground footage from real protests around the US. More than one bit of media has leveraged footage from Charlottesville: you’ll catch glimpses in Season 3 of Mr. Robot, a New Years trailer for Black Mirror, and of course the dramatic ending of Spike Lee’s Oscar-nominated Blackkklansman. But, and despite the repeated references to “Charlottesville” in the film, Civil War doesn’t use a single image from Unite the Right. The city itself makes no appearance, the only scene supposedly set there is a nondescript field whose background conspicuously lacks the rolling peaks of the Virginia piedmont so dear to our residents.

As a fifteen-year Charlottesville resident married to a lifelong local, and as a survivor of the terror and violence from that horrific weekend, I’m accustomed to the images of my trauma and the name of my home being used as a metaphor. The screaming, contorted faces of twenty-something white supremacists lit orange by citronella flame has been the media’s go-to image to depict hate in America for the last seven years. I’ve accepted that “Charlottesville” is become an event, no longer a place, and that its invocation is intended to mean something about the values of America. Which is why I am so nonplussed that in Civil War, it represents literally nothing.

The problem with the film is that it tries to present civil war to an American audience with very little tangible understanding of what war really is. It dwells too long in its own headspace, a thought experiment taken too far and without sufficient reflection. For all the war movies we make – for all the wars we start – we don’t really understand culturally what they look and sound and feel like. Americans are masters at empathy-at-a-distance, but Garland doesn’t understand how. His storytelling misses all the emotional beats, when he reaches for the uncanny he succeeds only briefly. His filmography gives him away. He’s trying to recreate a war story as seen through photographs, as if interpolating between data points but not really understanding conceptually what it must have felt like to be there.

It’s not that the depictions are unrealistic – in some respects they’re all too real. The protagonists stop to rest at a refugee camp built into a high school football stadium somewhere in West Virginia. Wild angle shots show it covered in graffiti, an evident statement about the ruin and abandon of war. But the graffiti itself, more prosaic than what you’ll see on the average side street in Berlin’s hip, multi-culti Kreuzberg district, avoids political statement; there is nothing about the cause of the war to be inferred from it. These scenes lack color. When I ran two humanitarian relief missions to Ukraine during the early days of Russia’s invasion, there were sights and sounds that I can never forget. The silence of tens of thousands of people beneath the gentle snow of a Sunday night waiting to cross the Korczowa-Krakovets border station into Poland, groups of women, children and the elderly arriving by foot into the waiting, smiling arms of Polish soldiers, welcoming them warmly with water and blankets and food. The joy of giving a handful of chocolates to a Ukrainian family at a rest stop-cum-relief station along a Polish motorway. The chaos of a late night border gas station, an amalgam of Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, and, desperately, my limited Czech being shouted as we all try to figure out whose car is at which pump and how much we have to pay. Ostensibly, the film is about photojournalists’ romantic and tragic quest to capture the human scenes of war, but strangely, it doesn’t seem to show any.

The origin story of the film’s protagonist – Kirsten Dunst – is an award-winning photograph of a supposed “ANTIFA massacre”. In the real world, there’s only really one incident that would come close to that description: the vehicular terror attack that killed Heather Heyer. This is the film’s central irony. In actuality, a local photojournalist, Ryan Kelly, won a Pulitzer for his photo of the car driving into the antifascist march. It was his last assignment – his best photo taken on his last day as a journalist – because he had quit his job to go work at a local brewery in an effort to find work that paid a decent wage, a true Greek tragedy if ever there were one.

Civil War once again lifts Charlottesville into the canon of American mythology. Making Charlottesville the site of the story’s front lines was a choice, one whose consequences the scriptwriters seem aggressively to ignore. The problem is that’s been done before. When I was organizing antifascist counter-demonstrations against the neo-Nazis marching into my city, I often told my peers, “some of us are doing activism, and some of us are fighting a war. Figure out which one you’re doing.” As the violence of the weekend unfurled, a young white supremacist named Will Fears swung a flagpole like a weapon, shouting “fire the first shots in the race war!” Militiamen in tactical gear filled our streets carrying enough firepower to make the 10th Mountain Division blush. And the first first responder vehicle to arrive on the scene of the terror attack wasn’t an ambulance but an MRAP – a mine resistant, ambush protected vehicle designed to withstand IED blasts from insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. The problem with Civil War is that the story it tries to tell has already begun.

Posted: 03.05.2024

Built: 22.05.2024

Updated: 03.05.2024

Hash: 3806da8

Words: 1699

Estimated Reading Time: 9 minutes