The following is a first in an opinion column, Serious Business, focusing on ideology and its relationship to film. All opinions expressed hereafter are the sole domain of the writer and are not promoted by Cinedelphia itself.
Recently I was discussing with a friend my disappointment over the second Captain America movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). It wasn’t an aesthetic failure, in my estimation. Visually, the film is probably the best pure action movie of the year, with set-pieces that move from the ridiculous into the sublime; the image of Captain America taking down a fighter jet with just his shield is both silly and awe-inspiring.
No, the film’s failure, and one hindering Western genre cinema on a larger scale, is on an ideological level. The film wanted to posit there is something fundamentally wrong with American society but instead of owning that problem it chose to transfer the focus of its hostility outward.
Central to the thematic core of The Winter Soldier, and this is a spoiler warning for the six of you who still haven’t seen it, is the idea S.H.I.E.L.D. has been infiltrated by the very people, but more importantly the ideas, it was created to oppose. Cleverly working in questionable real-world choices by our government in the wake of World War II, Winter Soldier wants to draw a parallel between Hydra’s war of subterfuge and America’s current war on privacy.
In this sense, Winter Soldier wants to exist as something more than just a superhero film. It strives to be The Parallax View (1974), a tense exploration of Cold War/Post 9/11 paranoia, rather than Captain America, a movie about square-jawed Americans punching out Nazis. While admirable in intention, the film falters in execution because it can never fully commit to its aim. The Parallax View is straight-forward in its understanding of where it exists on the political spectrum – it isn’t a polemic so much as a foregone conclusion. It was prescient in its views of a corporately-run political system, but it was also soul-crushing in its relative bleakness to other films with such aspirations, films like The Winter Soldier.
Where these two films diverge isn’t in the paranoia they seek to promote, but rather in the realities in which they operate. The Parallax View is reality; it’s a film in which a government sanctions political assassinations, spying on its own citizens and ultimately goes to great lengths to destroy any potential whistle-blowers. This in itself isn’t revelatory. As a country, America has been doing this pretty much from the word, “Go!” The revelation in The Parallax View is, even if we haven’t realized it, this is who we are, who we’ve been, who we were always meant to be. While we might empathize with Warren Beatty, we are in fact more like the shadow agents out to kill him. The people making up the Parallax Corporation are Americans, not some group of foreigners secretly infiltrating us. In comparison, The Winter Soldier exists almost as a lazy form of fear projection, shifting nationalistic soul-searching into anxiety over invasion by a foreign threat. Instead of looking in a mirror and questioning who’s looking back, The Winter Soldier chooses to turn its gaze to the window and fear what’s out there.
The film wants to conclude by positing that we must tear down our current Intelligence apparatus for fear of abuse, but instead ends up offering an entirely different argument: only a true American such as Steve Rogers is capable of judging when such a system is appropriate. Rogers objects for the “right” reasons, but we’re not at the core of the problem — Hydra is; the idea being, we never would have arrived at this problem without foreign infiltration.
Over the coming weeks, I intend to explore further genre fascination with revolution, and its inept handling by Western filmmakers:
9/11/14: Bloodsports, Wish Fulfillment and Pacification: The Hunger Games
9/18/14: Dystopian Anxiety in the Age of Boredom: The Matrix
9/25/14: The Police State is Now: Dredd