CHARLIE GIBSON: Do you agree with the Bush doctrine?
SARAH PALIN: In what respect, Charlie?
GIBSON: The Bush — well, what do you — what do you interpret it to be?
PALIN: His world view.
GIBSON: No, the Bush doctrine, enunciated September 2002, before the Iraq war.
As Sam Wilson struggles to jog through the National Mall in the heart of Washington D.C., we see Steve Rogers repeatedly zip past him without breaking a sweat. Each time Rogers approaches Wilson, he gives the same cautionary warning: “On your left.” They are the first words spoken in the new film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and they lay the groundwork for much of the political perspective of the film. While this Captain America may sneak up on you—you’ll find him “on your left.”
By the time you read this column, it’s likely that you will have already read several reviews of this film—probably even here at Sequart—so I won’t belabor the aesthetics too much. Suffice it to say that The Winter Soldier is the best of the Marvel-produced films thus far. While not as fun or epic as The Avengers, it’s ultimately more tightly focused and better crafted, with a greater sense of peril in its action sequences, a more coherent plot, more quiet character moments, and more ambitious themes.
[Author’s note: While I don’t give away lots of details, what follows does contain spoilers.]
Taking a cue from Ed Brubaker’s celebrated run, The Winter Soldier succeeds by de-emphasizing the super-heroics and repositioning itself as a spy movie—like a Bond or Bourne film, only with funny clothes. It also succeeds by taking a fairly bold political stance for a corporate-owned Hollywood blockbuster. While not a complete throwback to the American cinema of the 1970s, the paranoid spy-thriller tone does hearken back to post-Watergate classics like The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, and Marathon Man. Similarly, the most exhilarating action sequence—the attempted assassination of Nick Fury—begins with a direct invocation of the toll booth scene from The Godfather and then summons up the same frenetic fever of the car chase from The French Connection. And of course, the casting of Robert Redford—icon of politically-informed ‘70s dramas like The Candidate, the aforementioned Three Days of the Condor, and All the President’s Men—only adds to the sense of paranoia and intrigue. In fact, this ‘70’s sensibility is so prevalent you get the impression that had Redford turned them down they would’ve offered his role to Warren Beatty.
So as a movie, there’s a lot to love here. But what makes it particularly interesting is the political perspective. The basic storyline relies on three key political issues that have defined the last dozen years: the ethics of using of pre-emptive force, the dangers of exploiting confusion for political advantage, and the need for more transparency from the intelligence community.
To help understand part of this film’s subtext, let’s go back to that famous moment quoted in the epigraph when ABC’s Charlie Gibson asked Sarah Palin about the Bush Doctrine. It was during the final six weeks of the 2008 Presidential campaign and at the time the media reaction mostly focused on the perpetual melodrama that surrounded the Republican nominee for Vice President—Sarah Palin. No one, including the senator who picked her, knew much about the Alaska governor, so her inability to answer the question certainly raised questions about her overall qualifications. But the implications of her ignorance of the Bush Doctrine go far beyond the more superficial performance analysis that typifies the coverage of a presidential campaign.
The Bush Doctrine, formally known as the “National Security Strategy of the United States,” represented a fundamental change in America’s use of military force. It provided a justification for military action against anything or anyone that posed a potential threat to the United States. This policy moved beyond the old notion of an “imminent” threat (i.e., the discovery of specific plans for attacking or invading the country). With this new policy, there need be no specifically planned attack. Instead, the Bush Doctrine allowed for pre-emptive strikes against anyone who might be deemed hostile and might be capable of attacking at some point in the future. Like the 2002 Tom Cruise summer blockbuster, Minority Report, we could now anticipate who we thought might launch an attack and go ahead and take them out ahead of time. And the new policy was used, of course, as the primary ideological justification for the ill-fated war in Iraq.
All of which raises the question, how could the nominee for the Vice Presidency—someone who supported going to war and whose son was actually preparing to serve—how could anyone at that level be totally ignorant about the public policies that led to war?
Contrary to what you may be thinking, this isn’t all a big set-up for a Sarah Palin joke. While I am obviously neither an admirer nor a supporter, I don’t believe she’s stupid. In fact, I think a lot of Americans would’ve answered Gibson’s question in the same bumbling manner, for despite the presence of more news coverage than any time in human history, we remain one of the most badly informed.
Just as Shakespeare teases his audience by introducing a series of underdeveloped motivations for Iago’s hatred of Othello, Americans were presented with a flurry of half-baked theories and justifications for why we were about to go to war. Rather than weakening the push to war, this strategic misdirection muddied the debate and allowed the Bush administration to control the discussion with false dilemmas, such as whether war opponents opposed or supported Saddam Hussein. Such chaos and confusion continued to impact the political conversation as the administration periodically raised the alert level with its strange, color-coded alert system—never with any explanation, always with a positive uptick in the President’s poll numbers.
Such chaos and confusion breeds uneasiness and fear, much like the fear that helped pass the Patriot Act and inspired the willing surrender of many forms of privacy—a surrender no one even seemed to remember when, a decade later, Edward Snowden leaked information about the NSA surveillance program.
Remarkably, The Winter Soldier suggests strong opposition to these three main issues: pre-emptive action, politically-motivated chaos, and secret surveillance. The plot, which I won’t attempt to summarize in detail, hinges on the development and deployment of three all-powerful S.H.I.E.L.D. machines that are capable of identifying and coordinating an attack on “potential” threats. It is this new technology that raises Nick Fury’s suspicions, and his effort to delay them leads to his attempted assassination. Likewise, as Captain America learns, Hydra has infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. and is using a global strategy of chaos and confusion to strengthen its grip and bring about a new sense of order and control. And, perhaps most striking of all, the film culminates with the heroes participating in a Chelsea Manning/Edward Snowden/Wikileaks-style information dump onto the Internet and the dismantling of S.H.I.E.L.D.
For Disney, a corporation often seen as supporting the status quo and one that is heavily invested in the S.H.I.E.L.D. concept, given its ongoing television series, the movie represents a fairly subversive, radical statement.
All of which is not to say that The Winter Soldier is some kind of masterpiece of political radicalism. It also contains the obligatory super-hero torture scene, though this one feels rather half-hearted at best, and it includes a scene where Nick Fury tells a story about his grandfather that seemingly celebrates carrying concealed handguns.
But the biggest weakness in the film’s political vision is the use of Hydra as the source of all problems. Granted, Hydra, as a generic, catchall enemy, allows for coded storytelling and perhaps enables the filmmakers to more safely explore all of these political issues. But choosing a covert remnant of Nazi-ism as the source of all the corruption suggests an artistic vision where the only real source of danger in society comes from “outside evil,” and the moments from the film when powerfully-placed political figures secretly whisper “Hail Hydra” to their fellow club members is both clumsy and embarrassing—especially for a film that is otherwise as sophisticated and relevant as this one.
But overall, this is an impressive film, and as regular readers of this column know, I was a tough sell. I wrote a couple of weeks ago about my lack of enthusiasm for the movie and the problems I often have connecting with the Steve Rogers character. But while Rogers remains a bland protagonist, his character isn’t really what The Winter Soldier is all about, and his behavior doesn’t really drive the story. Instead, the filmmakers build a world around him that forces him to react. Thus, late in the film when Sam asks how to tell the good guys from the bad, Cap’s response, “If they’re shooting at you, they’re bad,” isn’t a celebration of black and white morality so much as it is his general modus operandi. He just responds to what is around him. The result takes a lot of the pressure off Steve Rogers and helps the film work.
So am I eating crow? Partially. Let’s call it a lunch portion.
 Not all of the allusions are from the ‘70s. In one scene that takes place in Secretary Pierce’s kitchen at night, the Redford character removes a conspicuously-placed carton of milk from the refrigerator. Everything about the scene hearkens back to a moment from John Frankenheimer’s Cold War classic, The Manchurian Candidate, only with a very different outcome this time.