By George Ligon (Columnist)
Warning: Major Spoilers.
One Long Sentence Review: Proof that the paranoia political thriller can be filled with action, the exquisitely enjoyable The Winter Soldier should be viewed not as another Marvel film, but as a standalone commentary on contemporary security issues.
PPH Rating: 9.5
Since the film is already in stores and will undoubtedly have been seen by many of you, I’ll skip over giving a full critical review of the first of this summer’s two Marvel blockbusters (the zanily fun Guardians of the Galaxy is the other) and get straight to the commentary.
I will begin by saying that I think this will go down as the most durable, and quite possibly the best, superhero movie of the decade. It proved that comic book franchises can work as an effective medium for political commentary, something that only Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy had accomplished before.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier offers up a vision of the future, but it is a future very strongly grounded in our present reality, replete with drones, hacking, military action of dubious legality, data-mining, and a surveillance state, all coming together to create a very complex moral dilemma for Captain America. As a man from a simpler era, Steve Rogers (the Captain's civilian name) is the perfect prism through which to view ourselves.
Given the subject matter, it is perhaps not surprising that director’s Anthony and Joe Russo chose to take their film’s cues from the paranoia filled conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s, even going so far as to cast the masterful Robert Redford (Three Days of the Condor, All the President’s Men, and Spy Games) in the role of central villain. The titular Winter Soldier is one of the better villains in recent memory, with sharp Cold War echoes that reverberate throughout the film. The soundtrack is pitch-perfect as well, filled with ominous percussions and nervous violins.
Yet while the numerous homages to previous thrillers were all well executed, what was far more interesting was how well they worked. They worked, I believe, because TheWinter Soldier’s themes connected with the audience at that uncomfortable juncture of emotion and intellect where so many difficult questions reside. As someone who is inherently sensitive to anything political, I found the film to be relevant but heavy handed at times in how it presented its themes, but walking out of the theatre I was astonished that the conversations around me were about the politics of the film, not the big action set pieces that superhero movies thrive on.
Here is a list of just some of the questions raised in The Winter Soldier:
- What is the difference between a preemptive strike and a first strike? What is the moral justification for launching a preemptive strike?
- How much surveillance is too much? How is a government or intelligence agency charged with the protection of millions supposed to balance the demands of security against protecting liberty?
- Can the agency charged with protecting us from terrorists, in the process, effectively become a terrorist organization itself?
- How removed from the conceptual tides of democracy should a military, police, or intelligence agency be? How much trust can be placed in elected officials to act responsibly without hindering them through bureaucracy?
- How can laws be written to regulate such agencies when often what they do is immoral or illegal, but nonetheless deemed necessary? Is it really necessary? If so, does that necessity provide a moral justification?
- How are we to balance “need to know” secrets against a legitimate need to know?
Of course, the contemporary corollaries to the film’s questions are numerous: drone strikes, government wiretapping, power to suspend civil liberties, police brutality, social media and the instant passing of judgement without due process, etc. The paranoia that conspiracy thrillers like The Winter Soldier require to thrive exists within society today, and these questions are being debated at the highest levels of government and academia, as much as they are discussed around coffee tables and over pints.
What makes The Winter Soldier unique is not that it raises these questions (the questions have been asked before) but rather, because it is not just The Winter Soldier, but Marvel’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, global blockbuster. A significant proportion of those who saw the film would likely have been people who were generally not heavily politically engaged, and who were not likely to spend their time questioning the morality of the CCTV camera on the street corner. By centering the film around such themes, the Russo brothers brought such discussions back into the public conscience in a way that does not tend to happen without an incident or scandal major enough to overtake celebrity gossip and reality TV as the main popular talking point.
There are encouraging signs that The Winter Soldier will not be an exception to the rule going forward. Next summer’s followup to The Avengers, titled The Avengers: Age of Ultron, revolves around a robotic security force. A similar plot device was used in X-Men Days of Future Past this summer, though neither of these look to be anywhere near as political as The Winter Soldier. While this pleases the cynic within me who thinks that most people don’t pay enough attention to politics, I will admit that as a movie fan I am worried that superhero films might try too hard to be gritty and realistic, thereby taking the fun out of the experience in the process. But that’s another discussion entirely, and not a problem experienced by The Winter Soldier, which was almost criminally fun at times.
One very relevant political question that The Winter Soldier made me reflect on was that one reason legislation and serious discussion about surveillance technology is so far behind the technology and practices used today, is that very few politicians are even capable of understanding the technology. This is both due to the inexperience of politicians and the difficulty of understanding something that will be woefully out of date in just a few months.
Another question I thought of was that unlike opening a letter before delivering it, much of the data-mining done by governments is also done by big companies, collecting a picture of the individual through their digital footprint. Once something goes on the web, it’s not private anymore. I wonder if that should include email. Once I hit send, should I really have any reasonable expectation of privacy?
Since Steve Rogers was said to have grown up in the 1930s, he was constructed as simultaneously knowing and naive - whilst well versed in the dangers of yesteryear, he remains guileless in the face of more the contemporaneous kind. Threats no longer wear uniforms and fight openly. The response-oriented mindset no longer works against today's threats. We, now, assume that it’s the government’s job to prevent a threat before it develops into an attack, not just to respond to an attack. The only way this is achieved is through heavy surveillance, this is how we are kept safe. Yes, there are clear infringements on personal liberty, but isn’t that just part of the modern Hobbesian social contract? The balance between security and liberty is delicate, there is no one right answer. Furthermore, any answer must be understood to be both historical and specific to a regime. What is right for Denmark in 2005 should not be the benchmark for America in 2014.
Yet while I can make seemingly effective arguments for surveillance all day long, I cannot shake the knowledge that I am compromising liberty in the process, and that such lines of thought lead to the curtailment of liberty, often permanently, for governments are not in the habit of surrendering power. In some ways I lean towards a more Burkean understanding of liberty, that it should be maximized for the individual but not at the cost of a stable system. Still, I am equally torn between wanting even more liberty and wanting more security. Perhaps what I really want is to have all my liberty and a small domestic government that does a whole lot of illegal surveillance on foreign threats, but that’s probably having my cake and eating too.
Maybe it’s time for a new understanding of the social contract, but that would require a whole new vocabulary of terms that I am not qualified to create. However, I would encourage you to give the question sober consideration.
If you have yet to see Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and have not done so on the grounds that it’s a superhero movie and therefore intrinsically silly and pointless, then do this: go rent the movie and see for yourself if it really is pointless (side note: the first Captain America was pointless). I suspect that if you watch the movie with a political lens, you’ll find within it a wealth of pertinent and timeless themes.
Who knows, you might even enjoy the movie as nothing more than a great bit of entertainment.
|Metric (Total Possible)||Score (9.5/10)||Explanation|
|Money Point (1)||1||1.0 = Own it
.75 = See it in cinemas
.5 = Cinemas off-peak
.25 = Rent it later
0 = Skip it.
|Enjoyability (3)||3||Sense of satisfaction, fun, and keeping you tuned into the screen.|
|Artistry (3)||2.75||Directing, Script, Acting|
|Political/Philosophical Value (3)||2.75||Prevalence of interesting political or philosophical themes|