How Films Like ‘Civil War’ Can Spark Important Conversations and Help Defeat the ‘Outrage Industrial Complex’ (Guest Column)

When millions of Americans came together to marvel at the stunning solar eclipse, we saw a rare moment of unity amid the darkness of a country torn apart by polarization. Bookending the same week? The release of action-thriller “Civil War,” now the number one film in America and A24 Films’ most successful release yet. Set against the backdrop of an imagined second American Civil War, the film follows photojournalists led by Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst), as they capture the horrors of a failed country.

After previewing the film, I fixated on the plot’s open space left by writer and director Alex Garland. For audiences wondering what leads us to this point of no return, Garland deliberately shoots back with blanks, inviting us to fill in the rest.

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I believe that it matters how we fill those gaps. Films of this magnitude, especially on a radioactive topic, set a narrative in our culture. And culture precedes politics. When you release a film called “Civil War” ahead of the most divisive election in our lifetimes, it hits a nerve. It influences how we view and engage with one another, as well as with our institutions.

When I consider the larger trends in our country, the film’s dystopian depiction feels alarmingly prophetic, as fear-driven rhetoric and ideological silos push us further apart. A 2022 poll by The Economist and YouGov found that 40 percent of Americans believe a new civil war is “at least somewhat likely” in the next decade, and by some measures, we may already be in a cold civil war. It was only a matter of time until a movie like “Civil War” portrayed the devastating potential of our toxic political culture.

However, entrenched systems in our entertainment, media, and politics over-amplify a culture of contempt, blocking out the genuine connections that bind Americans together. Research from More in Common shows there is a “perception gap” that proves we are not nearly as divided as we are led to believe. 79% of Americans say, given the opportunity, they would play a part in reducing social divisions.

Based on conversations I have had with the film’s director, cast, and numerous moviegoers, the biggest question appears more terrifying than the film itself: What should we do after being “scared as hell”? How should we take action?

The reality is, the proven solutions — from the personal and local level, to the national and systemic level— don’t get the screen time, and people lose hope. We need to change that. Here are three of the most important strategies to steer America clear from a second civil war:

  1. Bridge Building over Bomb Throwing: Building bridges across differences offers the opportunity to enrich your understanding of an issue and even rebuild relationships with friends and family members. Think about building bridges like jazz musicians create art — listen openly, assemble a diverse ensemble and riff on ideas. While riffing, ask questions with the intention to learn. As Civil War actor Wagner Moura highlighted on CBS Sunday Morning, “Now I’m really making an effort to sit down and listen to people that I disagree [with]. And I was absolutely surprised to see that if you value democracy…there’s lots of common ground.”

Our society’s bridging muscles have atrophied, but we can exercise them in the realm of cultural experiences before getting to politics. For example, Americans across our many divides helped elevate basketball star Caitlin Clark and the NCAA women’s March Madness final, breaking viewership records. Sports are a great unifier — and a starting point for re-humanizing fellow Americans who might disagree on other topics. Sharing common cultural moments builds the bonds that we need in our society for local and national progress.

  1. Expand Your Media Palate for Richer Stories: Garland is right to highlight journalists as essential to democracy. But how we consume that journalism — which often feeds red meat and dopamine hits to reinforce your biases — has a major impact on whether we exacerbate division in America. Just as a varied diet is essential for physical health, diversifying media consumption is vital for civic well-being.

Be mindful of social media algorithms and break out of their echo chambers. Actively seek diverse voice — left and right, establishment and independent, from our coastal cities to middle America — to foster a more nuanced understanding of our world. Explore newer platforms seeking to disrupt the polarization of media. Former CNN chief White House Correspondent Jessica Yellin’s News Not Noise and are two exciting examples.

  1. Reform the Outrage Industrial Complex: We must also remember that entrenched systems are profiting off of our divisions. The dirty secret is that most members of Congress are cordial and reasonable behind the scenes — only to dish up vitriol when the cameras are on. We can combat the outrage industrial complex by advocating for systemic change. Push for reforms like open, nonpartisan primaries, combined with ranked choice general elections (currently adopted in Alaska, for example), to incentivize politicians to appeal to a broader base — the “exhausted majority.” Delivering results, instead of fueling hatred, will earn people’s trust back in our institutions.

As the credits roll on Civil War, and we emerge from the darkness of the theater, we are left with an imperative choice: remain passive viewers of a potential future or take active roles in forging a new path. Whether we channel our energy towards the real solutions designed to prevent a second civil war is up to us. And leaders in entertainment, media, and politics can choose to highlight our capacity to connect across divides, rather than perpetuate the cycles of dehumanization. Together, we can choose to replace the guns of self-destruction with the open hands and minds of a strong democracy. We can create a new story of us — and of the U.S.

Steven Olikara is the president of Bridge Entertainment Labs, dedicated to harnessing the power of entertainment media and culture-change to transform the divisions in America. He is also the founder and former CEO of Future Caucus (formerly Millennial Action Project), the largest cross-partisan organization of young elected officials in the U.S.

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