“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” has won accolades for its exploration of those themes. “Winter Soldier” basically says that the NSA was invented by Nazis…and that we let it happen, insisted even, giving up our freedom because we were too afraid to do anything else,” wrote Darren Franich in Entertainment Weekly. But you can only be so subversive when you run a multi-billion franchise and have your stars signed to long-running contracts. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” may be inspired by President Obama’s kill list. But it reaches the same conclusions the administration uses to justify the targeted killing program.
First, a quick rundown of the film’s plot. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, dandy as ever) is acclimating to life in the 21st century, though he’s handling hijackings a bit better than building a new social life: “All the guys in my barbershop quartet are dead,” he deadpans at one point. But his work for S.H.I.E.L.D., the agency that manages superheroes and other tools the American government employs against the humans and gods who go bump in the night, has brought him into conflict with S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson).
Fury has been overseeing a new weapons program called Project Insight that syncs up satellites that can “read a terrorist’s DNA” and helicarriers with precision weapons, so S.H.I.E.L.D. can take out potential threats, rather than responding after a hijacking or an attack. Rogers objects immediately on principle, and Fury joins in when he discovers that he has been locked out of Project Insight. Ultimately, we learn that Hydra, the nasty totalitarian agency from the previous “Captain America” movie, has infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D., and lead by Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), intends to use Project Insight to kill a great number of people. Much hullabaloo ensues. Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) pulls an Edward Snowden and releases all of the agency’s files onto the internet. And Rogers, Fury, and Romanoff manage to crash the helicarriers into the Potomac River. Conveniently, only agents of Hydra are manning the ships, so it does not matter that almost everyone on board is killed.
I know the summary is long, but I give it because for all of the grand statements “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” makes about politics, at every turn, its details reveal the limits on its convictions. Most fundamentally, the movie needs to end with our trust in Steve, Fury, and Natasha intact: Nick Fury, after all, is an advocate for Project Insight up until the moment he discovers he does not have complete control over it. On a larger scale, he allows Hydra to infiltrate his organization, and has absolutely no idea that anything is wrong until Hydra agents try to kill him, a failure of judgement that does little to credential Fury as a spy or as an administrator.
And yet, we are still supposed to trust him to make critically important decisions. The movie builds to a climax where Fury shoots Pierce in the heart, rather than disabling him or capturing him for trial. “Captain America” sees no real contradiction between Fury’s actions and the movie’s cheering for Natasha as she dumps all of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s files onto the internet. Keeping Pierce around to interrogate him might help the intelligence community understand how Hydra burrowed so deep into S.H.I.E.L.D., but that’s less cute than declaring that Natasha’s intel dump is trending and moving on to the next action set-piece.
Similarly, revealing that Hydra is the author of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s misfortunes simultaneously creates a connection between the first “Captain America” movie and the second, and undermines the movie’s critique of the intelligence community. If S.H.I.E.L.D. did not actually reach the conclusion that it needs to start preventative killings of Americans on its own, than the organization is, to a certain extent, exonerated. All of its terrible decisions can be blamed on Hydra, rather than on its own internal culture or paranoid approach to security.
And “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” returns time and time again to the idea that the biggest issue in national security is who controls the apparatus, rather than whether we should use certain technologies or techniques at all. “What if Pakistan marched into Mumbai, and you knew they were going to drag your daughters into a soccer stadium and shoot them, and you could just stop it. With the flip of a switch. Wouldn’t you?” Pierce asks a member of the World Security Council who is horrified at the uses to which Pierce intends to put Project Insight. “Not if it was your switch,” the man tells him.
We are supposed to be fine with Fury’s choice to shoot Pierce because we trust him. And when Steve, Romanoff, and Fury send the Project Insight helicarriers into deadly crashes, we are not supposed to be bothered by the massive, indiscriminate loss of life they just caused both because they are our heroes, and because the movie tells us that everyone on board is a bad guy. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” at least avoids the destruction so many blockbusters visit on major cities with surprisingly little mention or consequence by sending the helicarriers into the Potomac, and the Triskelion, the S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters, which is full of Hydra agents. But even if they avoid civilian casualties, the movie shows the same lack of interest in criminal proceedings that characterizes the targeted killing program. In comparison to all this carnage, Rogers’ decision not to kill the Winter Soldier, a Hydra agent who turns out to be his old friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), is not exactly a reassuring sign of restraint.
In an odd way, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” accidentally provides a stronger critique of the conservative response to the Benghazi attacks than the security state itself. Pierce tells Steve that he and Fury became close when an embassy was attacked in Bogota and “Nick had ignored my direct order and carried out an unauthorized military operation on foreign soil. Saved the lives of 12 political officers, including my daughter.” The lesson Pierce took from the incident, as he tells Fury later, is not that diplomats are brave people who face down terrible risks to do their jobs, and that to do them right, they sometimes need to be dangerously exposed. Instead, it’s that diplomacy is “a holding action. A Band-Aid.” Suggesting that Benghazi paranoia is the first step towards declaring “Hail Hydra!” is a sharper slap than a muted critique of targeted killing, but it is also a comparatively tiny part of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
And in its final moments, the movie shakes off the idea that we can do anything other than trust superheroes like Rogers. A senator (Garry Shandling) who tried to exercise oversight over Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) in “Iron Man 2” is revealed in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” to be a womanizing pawn of Hydra. When a general asks Romanoff, fairly reasonably, “how this country is expected to maintain its national security now that you and Captain America have destroyed our intelligence apparatus?” she responds with disdain. Romanoff tells the committee that it will never exercise meaningful oversight over people like her, Rogers and Fury, because “you need us.”
In the sorts of paranoid conspiracy thrillers the Russos say they love, a scene like this, which echoes the whitewash at the end of Alan J. Pakula’s “The Parallax View,” would be a sign of how utterly defeated the forces of good are. In “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” it’s meant as a nod to realpolitik, and a signal for its heroes to go forth and redeem themselves, but more for their benefit than ours.
“Hydra was founded on the idea that humanity could not be trusted with its own freedom,” Dr. Arnim Zola, the Hydra agent who lives on as an artificial intelligence, tells Rogers and Romanoff when they uncover him. But Rogers, Fury, and Romanoff essentially tell us the same thing. The issue in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is less that we outsource our freedom, and more who we hand it over to. Ultimately, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is a movie about the targeted killing program that reaches essentially the same answer as the Obama administration: As long as Barack Obama, or Steve Rogers, or Nick Fury is deciding who should be killed, things are essentially all right.