“Civil War” ’s Unsettling Images

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“Civil War,” Alex Garland’s divisive new action flick, borrows iconography—and actual footage—from the America of today as set dressing for a hypothetical, fractured future. Though we know that the President is in his third term, and that Texas and California have formed an unlikely alliance against him, very little is said about the politics that brought us to this point. Garland’s true interest lies not with the cause of the carnage but with the journalists compelled to document it. On this episode of Critics at Large, the staff writers Vinson Cunningham, Naomi Fry, and Alexandra Schwartz debate whether the film glamorizes violence, or whether it’s an indictment of the way audiences have become inured to it through repeated exposure. The hosts consider Susan Sontag’s “On Photography,” which assesses the impact of the craft, and “War Is Beautiful,” a compendium that explores how photojournalists have historically aestheticized and glorified unthinkable acts. From the video of George Floyd’s killing to photos of Alan Kurdi, the young Syrian refugee found lying dead on a Turkish beach, images of atrocities have galvanized movements and commanded international attention. But what does it mean to bear witness in the age of social media, with daily, appalling updates from conflict zones at our fingertips? “I think all of us are struggling with what to make of this complete overabundance,” Schwartz says. “On the other hand, we’re certainly aware of horror. It’s impossible to ignore.”

Read, watch, and listen with the critics:

“Civil War” (2024)
“Ex Machina” (2014)
“Natural Born Killers” (1994)
“The Doom Generation” (1995)
War Is Beautiful,” by David Shields
On Photography,” by Susan Sontag
“Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold” (2017)

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