Hollywood Movies

‘Civil War,’ ‘Independence Day’ and the movies that love to blow up DC

April 17, 20248 Mins Read

This article contains spoilers for the movie “Civil War.”

The Western Forces descend on Washington.

Tanks and soldiers flood the District, helicopters loom above the low streetscape. The Lincoln Memorial, now a garrison, is destroyed by rocket fire. The invading army’s final target? The Oval Office, where an authoritarian president has lost control of everything. Combat journalists wade through the battlefield so the world can finally see, with horror and relief, how the United States has fallen.

That is how writer and director Alex Garland films the climax of his dystopian thriller “Civil War.” In it, he envisions a fractured nation: Texas and California have seceded and the Mid-Atlantic is a giant war zone. Critics have split over the movie’s scope and intentions, and whether Garland is playing with fire by invoking real-world political tensions while keeping the particulars blurry. Put me in the pro camp: A meditation on conflict’s tendency to exhilarate, horrify and compromise, “Civil War” teems with terror and suspense. As the protagonists travel circuitously from New York to D.C., they strain to remain impartial as they encounter unimaginable scenes on American soil: armed skirmishes, a mass grave. And then, finally, the destruction of a whole city — this one.

The decimation of Washington in “Civil War” hits you in the gut, which is actually kind of weird. Filmmakers love to destroy Washington. We see them do it — for the wrong reasons — all the time.

A city of symbols has something very important going for it: It’s also a city of shorthands. Pulverizing Washington — sacking it, wrecking it, roughing it up a bit — tells audiences that they’ve just witnessed a cataclysmic, unfathomable loss, a blow to the American spirit. But the most harrowing scenes of D.C. getting ethered — the ones that connect on an emotional level, like in “Civil War” — are from films that want to do more than use the monuments for pyrotechnics practice. Boots on the ground, the suggestion of a real city, are the only way to create intimacy and human stakes.

The most famous offender: “Independence Day,” the massively popular alien invasion film from 1996, in which a flying saucer fires a death ray directly onto the White House. Los Angeles and Manhattan get zapped too — but have some actual humans in the streets, including Harvey Fierstein’s “Oh crap”-sputtering New Yorker. In D.C., any catastrophic loss of life is incidental; the president and his entourage are whisked away from the White House just in time. No thought for those living nearby, no quantifiable loss of life, not even a tourist on Pennsylvania Avenue. Director Roland Emmerich might as well have blown up a dollhouse. In fact, that’s what he did.

That exploding White House is an impressive feat of practical effects, a money shot that intrigued audiences from the movie’s first trailer. But the shallow nature of “Independence Day” can be felt in how often the sequence has been remixed. The shot is a literal punchline in an Austin Powers movie. If you go to the Alamo Drafthouse movie theater in D.C., there’s a statue of Bill Pullman as the president he played in the film. It’s trivial. You cannot fathom “Civil War” lingering in the popular imagination as kitsch, because Garland wants to shake his audience, not have D.C.’s destruction amount to little more than movie magic.

Other, similarly cavalier examples abound. Tim Burton’s “Mars Attacks!” (1996) includes a cheeky sequence in which aliens use death rays and UFOs to juggle the Washington Monument until it can fall on a Boy Scout troop. For these cartoonishly evil Martians, that comes with a pay bump, as undoubtedly does dropping a chandelier on the first lady. Like Emmerich, Burton was borrowing Washington’s symbols for his own purposes — in his case, really handing it to elites — but at least his frantic, over-the-top film doesn’t register as glib.

More affecting is the mediocre sci-fi thriller “The Invasion” (2007), which is restrained in its assault on the District. But it is a frightening depiction of the city losing its grip, because it presents a ground-eye view of aliens taking control. I barely remember the film, but I have not shaken the image of people flinging themselves off the roof of Union Station.

How about superhero movies? “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” includes a giant hovercraft crashing into the Potomac River (the filmmakers had to digitally widen the waterway for their climactic shot). “X-Men: Days of Future Past” has a scene where the mutant Magneto levitates RFK Stadium from the banks of the Anacostia, then drops it onto the White House South Lawn. Like “Independence Day,” these sequences are technically impressive, but they need a human touch. Before Magneto lifts the football arena, he at least has an exchange with a worker — a human, who lives here! — who can only stand by and watch, powerless.

Blockbuster filmmakers like Emmerich aren’t seeking out character beats when they demolish the District and that’s not why we see his movies — or the decades of chase movies, fight movies, disaster movies and monster movies that ignore the human toll of the carnage they depict — anyway. These scenes are often made with impressive skill and craft, but unless there is a sense of humanity or loss, they’re can’t truly abhor or thrill. We can see an empty, technically proficient exercise when superstorms wreck D.C. in “The Day After Tomorrow,” or Cobra tanks roll toward the Capitol in “GI: Joe: Retaliation.” Almost all these scenes offer a distant view of the Capitol, rather than the street-level panic they would actually inspire. They don’t hit. The only drawback to finding some humanity in the District would be that directors might become less eager to annihilate it.

Where is the destruction of D.C. affecting? In video games.

Released in 2008 by Bethesda Softworks, the sci-fi role-playing game “Fallout 3” is set in a post-nuclear Washington, D.C. Players wander the National Mall and surrounding areas, known in the game as “The Wasteland.” Memorable dungeons to explore included Metro stations and Smithsonian museums, where players encounter zombies, mutants and giant insects. Ads for “Fallout 3” appeared around the D.C. Metro in 2008, showing the Capitol destroyed by a nuclear blast, and it was disturbing enough that a Washington Post reader wrote a letter to the editor complaining, “The people of our city do not need a daily reminder that Washington is a prime target for an attack. We do not need a daily reminder of what our worst fears look like.”

I wonder what that reader would have made of the 2019 action game “Tom Clancy’s The Division 2.” It is set in the near-future and envisions a Washington, D.C., where a genetically engineered virus obliterates the population, so it is up to an elite force of well-armed warriors to stop the city from being taken over by roving street gangs. Like “Fallout,” this game includes shells of famous landmarks, and yet it is the little details where the game finds its haunting verisimilitude. If the player wanders the map, they will find digital reproductions of every business and storefront. Promotional material for the game elaborates how developers used GIS data to get its setting just right, whether it’s each tree lining the Mall or the precise location of the Chinatown gate. The game’s developers even hired locals. Kelly Towles, an artist whose work can be found all over the D.C., contributed in-game graffiti that felt especially accurate to locals like me who are used to seeing his murals all over downtown.

I’ve lived in D.C., since 2006 and have sunk an embarrassing number of hours into both games. It was strangely comforting to wander the National Mall in “Fallout,” wondering whether the Metro could provide adequate shelter during a nuclear blast. In “The Division 2,” I could visit my old office and my favorite local cinema. That game became extra-eerie during the pandemic. In spring 2020, riding my bike through the abandoned streets of D.C. made me feel like a member of the Division, and made me see how the developers stumbled into something singular by making the game about how people might realistically attempt to survive in the actual D.C. When my player wanders into the Air and Space Museum or near the Tidal Basin for a protracted, desperate shootout, the game attains an emotional resonance that often eludes the medium.

“Civil War” does similarly right by this town. Before the Western Forces and the combat journalists can enter the White House, they have to make it past soldiers guarding the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. Garland imagines the EEOB protected by large concrete walls designed to repel on-the-ground troops — but it’s honestly not that much more intense than the security theater that visitors encounter in real life when they visit the building for a work event. A city of symbols, sure, but one that can hold multiple meanings. A city you hate to see go boom.

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