Captain America

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Perhaps one should never delve too deeply into the political messaging of any movie, let alone an action film filled with super heroes but Captain America: The Winter Soldier provides more grist than the average mainstream film. I was struck that this film — part of the ‘civil war’ theme being developed in the Marvel Universe opposes two fundamental strains of American political philosophy. Not left versus right but rather law versus order.

{Spoilers Ahead!} The film has a lot of subtleties, such as casting the quintessential Hollywood Liberal , Robert Redford as Pierce, the head of Hydra, and, when the death machines are targeting individuals for destruction (for the greater security of all) the target map displayed is the island of Manhattan, but these take a back seat to the more critical story being told.

Hydra represents the ultimate in authoritarian mechanisms and not surprisingly springs from the remnants of Nazi Germany. Yet it is perfectly able to infiltrate and take control of Shield, a putatively international (though essentially American) security organization. This is because authoritarians of all stripes are largely indistinguishable from one another. Hence when Captain America is asked – how do we tell which are the bad guys, he is forced to reply: They’re the ones shooting at us. The bad guys are distinguished from the good guys not by appearances or uniforms but by actions.

So what is offered up to this plea for security — Hydra’s promise that 7 billion people will be happier and more secure if we just eliminate these 20 million troublesome voices — seems on the surface nothing more or less than the individual heroism of the libertarian dream: the one man who can see past all the machinations of the state and triumph over evil in all its forms.

Yet Captain America is not quite so simple a figure. He doesn’t doubt for a minute that there is a role to be played by Shield but what he disagrees with is Nick Fury’s certainty that the ends always justify the means. He is convinced that the means can easily subvert the goals of society and turn even war heroes into nothing more than killing machines, tools to do their master’s bidding. The moment when Fury acknowledges that ‘I guess you’re giving orders now’ turns the movie from a competition between two authoritarian world views into one that acknowledges the essential opposition between security and freedom, between order and law.

Steve Rogers believes in fundamental things — his duty to his country and to his fellow citizens and his belief that society should be based on something more than what is expedient and necessary for the protection of itself. Rogers’s simple view is that society is based on things like human to human relationships, on friendship and love and mutual respect. His gesture to the Winter Soldier — a reprogrammed version of his best friend in a previous life — is a simple one. We are friends and we are in this together. We are indistinguishable from each other but one of us — maybe both — have lost our way. Ultimately, he stakes his life on that bond. He essentially lays down his weapons and trusts in their common humanity — a humanity that crosses enemy lines, ideological lines — to save his life. And more importantly to save Bucky’s soul.

And this is what distinguishes law from order. Law is about common values and about human to human relationships. Order is simply about control and power, about the termination of human intercourse under the guise of father knows best. An interesting film — I look forward to where the story goes next.

And that’s a bit more than ten minutes.

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