Spoiler alert: I’m in no way guarding my words in discussing this film, but I mean to get you to watch it and encourage others to do so– especially kids– even if you know every word of the script
Last night my son, T.J., took me to see ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’. I came home absolutely excited and delighted. This new film– certain to be a blockbuster anyway just for its towering success with all the normal metrics of action, drama, effects and pace– goes high on my list of important political films of the last decade.
This is a “Marvel Hero” vehicle, of course. It is thus rich with all the elements of fantasy native to that genre (all of which I appreciate).
But this new movie is also an unapologetic and completely ingenuous rebuke to the National Security State.
Full advantage is taken of the fact that the hero, Steve Rogers (aka, “Captain America”), was born in 1918 and spent the last 70 years in a state of suspended animation. When Rogers awakened from that interlude to today’s ‘total awareness’, ‘rendition and detention’, ‘drone assassination’ regime of ubiquitous government and its defensive corruptions of the law, he did so with the perspective of an American from a time when this country was a lot more free and the United States (the federal government) was a lot more law-abiding.
Rogers’ unique perspective is not played in comic-book fashion, though. There is no time or attention wasted with the character marveling at all the technological change of the past 70 years. Instead, Rogers’ circumstances are used simply to provide a convenient, highly-accessible contrast between the moral clarity more typical to an earlier time and today’s relativistic immorality in order to better communicate the filmmaker’s very serious message.
That message begins with Rogers’ righteous and confident denunciation of signature strikes, profiling, pre-emptive war, mass surveillance, and the corrupt arguments used to defend them. He is met with the usual, “Well, the world is a different place, now…” babytalk from Nick Fury, another Marvel hero-character, and the head of the Marvel Universe’s U.S. DHS/NSA/CIA-equivalent law-enforcement apparatus, S.H.I.E.L.D. (the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division).
Rogers buys none of Fury’s arguments, and refuses to help implement S.H.I.E.L.D.’s ‘final solution’ to the “problem” of terrorists, extremists and troublemaking in general– a dramatic advancement of all of these law-enforcement evils into an expanded, consolidated infrastructure. Instead, he walks.
Soon we discover that, unlike the moronic REAL cartoon-grade characters that populate two-dimensional nonsense like “24” and “Zero Dark Thirty”, Rogers has it pegged. As anyone who ever bothered to give it a moment’s thought understands, when people allow the tools of totalitarianism to be put in place, totalitarians will eventually take hold of them. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that S.H.I.E.L.D. is a project of the only types that would see anything but horror and doom in its assaults on the principles of liberty and proper law— leftover World War II Nazis and their modern ideological descendants.
In the end, the epiphany and the “coming around” due to the way events play out in this very grown-up comic-book movie happen for Fury, not Rogers. In the end, all the good guys– eventually even Fury– agree that a structure like S.H.I.E.L.D., for all of what might have been the good intentions behind it, is too dangerous to tolerate. Hear, hear.
The importance of this film is in its popular accessibility (and its unabashed use of that accessibility to deliver its important message). It IS a comic book offering– simple, serene in its lack of pretense, more than a little intellectually black-and-white. In those things, though, this movie importantly invokes the purity of a moral principle that blows past statist sophistries and legal hair-splitting.
‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ offers two simple truths. The first is that we may not always be able to see just HOW respecting everyone’s rights will deliver a better outcome in the end than disrespecting them. But that doesn’t matter. We just have to respect those rights, because its the right thing to do. The fact that we WILL have a “better” outcome on every other front from doing so is actually irrelevant (but it’s nice that it DOES, in fact, work out that way…)
The second simple truth offered by this film is that DIS-respecting people’s rights IS ITSELF too bad an outcome to be borne, no matter how much good we may be persuaded to imagine it will otherwise do.
This dialogue toward the end of the film between Robert Redford’s character, Alexander Pierce– the politician in charge of S.H.I.E.L.D., and an oversight-council member from India he is trying to persuade to support his program (even while holding him and the rest of the council at gunpoint), sums up the message of the movie well:
Alexander: “What if Pakistan marched into Mumbai tomorrow and you knew they were going to drag your daughter into a soccer stadium for execution? And you could just stop it with the flick of a switch. Wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t you all?”
The councilman responds with a grim and disgusted look: “Not if it was your switch.”
Can I hear a Hallelujah? Decent people don’t want that kind of switch to even exist. Nor do sensible people.
‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ is not a cerebral movie, nor even a witty movie. It’s just a Hero’s Tale, with its hero speaking honest, sensible and uncomplicated wisdom in a way that will reach every viewer’s heart and soul, and stick there. This is just the sort of thing we desperately need in our popular culture, and I hope 330 million Americans go see it.
P. S. After you see the film, read about America’s REAL ‘Shield’ here. Then get up and become an American hero yourself. There really IS no “Captain America”– there’s just you, and we’re all counting on you.