Monday, April 14, 2014

The Politics Of: The Winter Soldier

This weekend The Omnivore broke his habit of seeing “new movies” when they come out on cable (try having kids—just try it! See what it does to Opening Night!). The first part reviews the movie (and should be less spoliery). The second part talks politics and assumes you have already seen it.


The Winter Soldier

It’s two years after the Battle of New York (Avengers) and Steve Rogers is still coming to terms with his new life in modern-day America. He’s got ‘friends’ in the form of other agents (notably: Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow—and she gets enough to do in this movie that it qualifies as a Black Widow movie as well as a Captain America film) and Sam Jackson as, of course, Nick Fury—the director of SHEILD. He also has his unflappable can-do spirit which makes Chris Evans a joy to watch as he never gives in to the kind of murky angsty soul-searching that, for example, the Spider Man franchise falls prey to.

This isn’t to say he’s fine with everything: he finds the modern world a series of moral contradictions and while his ‘best girl’ is now 90 years old, he isn’t quite the type to ‘play the field.’ All his friends—the Howling Commandos of WWII, are dead. Worse, while Fury tried to tell him to “get with the program” and Johansson tries to fix him up with the nice girl next door, SHEILD is about to unleash a stupefying new program of flying-fortress type hover-weapons that makes Captain America wonder if the good-guys won WWII after all.

The Winter Soldier brings Captain America into the modern-day story-line with a political-tinged spy-thriller where no one can be trusted, the American government exists in moral shades of gray, and while we know there are other super heroes out there in the world, they’re all doing their own thing in little bubbles of their own priorities so it’s up to America (Captain, that is) to save Washington DC.

Captain America is the next achievement in the continuing triumph that is Kevin Feige’s resume. Feige was hired by Marvel after they decided to resurrect their movie business post selling off their big names to Sony (Spiderman) and Fox (the X-Men franchise). His stewardship has created an almost unbroken string of hits and he credits actually reading the source material (comics) and using that as both a source of character ideas and guide-rails when the writers get too far afield. We can only hope that the parent company, Disney, uses the same basic approach to quality control when it comes to the Star Wars franchise.

The Winter Soldier trades on good, charismatic casting, text-book action sequences, and a massive special effects budget to render Marvel’s universe in a 2hr 8min movie that doesn’t feel old and slow. The Winter Soldier feels a bit—I don’t know—optimistic? It tries to set someone with the “soul of America” in our modern-day environment and he does feel out of place and it’s clear that the creators don’t have some magical solution to the country being divided. On the other hand, they’ve done the right thing: put Captain America’s heart in the right place and figure that if they nail that the rest will work itself out.

This is a worthy edition to the ever-expanding franchise Marvel characters and shows us that the Captain America brand, only 2.5 movies in, has a good deal more runway before it gets old.Let’s do the politics!

The Politics of: The Winter Soldier

The Winter Solider was, from the ground up, a political thriller—as it was intended to be.
"[Marvel] said they wanted to make a political thriller," Joe Russo, who directed the film with his brother Anthony, tells Mother Jones. "So we said if you want to make a political thriller, all the great political thrillers have very current issues in them that reflect the anxiety of the audience...That gives it an immediacy, it makes it relevant. So [Anthony] and I just looked at the issues that were causing anxiety for us, because we read a lot and are politically inclined. And a lot of that stuff had to do with civil liberties issues, drone strikes, the president's kill list, preemptive technology"—all themes they worked into the film, working closely with screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely.
The plan in The Winter Soldier looks like this:
  1. Take the computer from Person of Interest that “reads every email, listens to every phone call, etc.” and makes predictive guesses about who is a threat.
  2. Instead of looking for murderers, set it to: ‘Patriotic Americans.’
  3. Instead of hooking it up to a crime-stopping duo, attach it to three massive, networked, flying battleships bristling with long-range, super accurate guns.
  4. When switching it on, it immediately opens fire, eliminating “the threat.”
  5. Hydra takes over the world, runs it efficiently, picks good judges for American Idol.
The two programs that The Winter Soldier keys on are (1) the collection of personal data by the NSA for threat detection and (2) the use of drones to kill targets (including Americans) from a distance. It merges these into the single program where (1) identifies people the Hydra cell that secretly runs SHIELD doesn’t like and then (2) the flying aircraft carriers gun them down.
The problem with this is that in order for it to work, Hydra must already have won. It isn’t their “triumph”—it’s just a slightly more efficient mode of operation. Why? Well, there are two reasons:
  1. Apparently the President, Congress, and the rest of the US Government either doesn’t exist or works for SHIELD.
  2. SHIELD knew about enough of this to make it highly suspect, even if it wasn’t going to be turned on Americans.

Where’s The President?

In The Avengers we watched SHIELD high-command decide to nuke New York without the President on the line. Alien invasion or no, that’s pretty extreme. In The Winter Soldier, presumably the ships are going to launch and then be allowed to kill just about anyone they read as a threat and, instead of planning to fight the whole US military AND the rest of SHIELD (key people are still IN the command center which, if the attack was read as a coup would be destroyed), they are planning to just play off the targets as terrorists.

If the US Government is so easily controlled that it’ll roll over for that HYDRA doesn’t have to conquer America: SHIELD has already done that.

The Reality Of The Two Programs

Americans have seen the NSA data-gathering program and we have not marched on the White House. We have seen Americans killed by the drone program and we have not impeached the president—that’s also true. The Winter Soldier takes these revelations and marries them together, turns them up to 11, and takes the position that we’ll be okay with that too. This is kind of bullshit.

Americans killed by drones are, with one exception, operating publically against America with material results (the first Ft. Hood shooting) out of range of conventional police jurisdiction (it has happened four times, one kill was, unfortunately, collateral damage—but the person in question was apparently sitting with the intended target). The killings in question do have elements of secrecy but the idea that there is no oversight or that Americans, ‘sitting in cafes,’ might be targeted by drone is ludicrous.
Similarly, while NSA data-mining may be an overreach and has yet to show any positive results (apparently there are not even secret wins for the program—one of the judges asked to see evidence of anything the program had yielded and came away empty handed) it is also not being used for targeting attacks on people of any sort.

Captain America hears about the program that will gun down terrorists before they can commit a crime and says “I thought the punishment usually came after the crime.” He’s right, kinda. Today the US Government has a ‘pre-crime’ program: it’s the FBI. When they identify a person who is looking for help carrying out attacks they will pair them with an agent (or Confidential Informant) who will claim to be able to get them help or even be Al Queada. The person is then led through the steps of acquiring ‘explosives,’ creating and placing a ‘bomb’ and then setting it off.

At this point they are arrested. No actual crime has been committed (it’s conspiracy to commit crime—which is real enough—but not the same as the crime itself, obviously). If that makes you queasy, The Omnivore understands—but consider the alternative: what if these people made contact with actual terrorists who had them do these things for real. Hundreds of virtual citizens have been theoretically blown up in these exercises. The idea that none of them would really come to fruition is simply wishful thinking.

So is Captain America right? Well, yes: if you remove all the steps where the person actually gets to act out the crime—if you remove all data-gathering, the trial, and so on—and replace that with a cannon? Yeah: he’s totally right.

And, problematically, even Sam Jackson was going to sign on to a version of that—which, apparently, America was going to allow.
But in real life these programs are not that sinister and they are not that simple.

The Assessment

The reason we don’t see the President in The Avengers (or The Winter Soldier) is because if you do, you make some kind of commentary on the current administration or America in general (even the generic casting-call president would indicate a weak America if he was just standing by letting New York glow in the dark). They don’t want to do that—it’s a distraction—so they just hope you won’t notice. The almost knee-jerk reaction to spying on Americans (remember how Morgan Freeman quit the Bat-Team because he was using cell-phone spying to catch the freakin’ Joker? That’s pretty legit, The Omnivore thinks. The Omnivore would, in fact, pay like an extra $5/mo to have the Bat Computer listen through his phone if it would catch The Joker) isn’t in The Winter Soldier as a point for discussion—it’s a signifier that the program is bad.

That plot-point is used to help the audience keep score. Captain America doesn’t ask what the certainty has to be that someone’s actually a terrorist before the ships open fire: that would be the first real question people would ask (and about follow up and false positives and whatever else). In The Winter Soldier, though, while he’s a bit appalled at extra-judicial execution, neither he nor anyone else assumes the system will often get it wrong.

In other words, the movie is designed to feel political and reflect current concerns—but it isn’t designed to actually probe or explore them. It just uses something that’ll kind of remind us of them and assumes that we’ll follow along easily enough (and, if not, well, there’s the HYDRA reveal to make sure). I’d say the movie was “Left Wing” on the basis that it’s against the dominant power-structure (SHIELD, apparently) but today, and with these issues, that doesn’t really work. No one is “making the hard calls” to protect a world that is in “clear and present danger” in The Winter Soldier.

There’s no real justification at all for this monstrosity other than HYDRA wants it and SHIELD can build anything it wants.

If The Winter Soldier had, perhaps, some targets of the ship rising as super-villains to avenge their dead friends? That’d be something. If it had the ships, I don’t know, target a politician that SHIELD didn’t like—but wasn’t a terrorist? Well—at least it would be asking ‘Who Watches the Watchmen?’ If leaks from the system exposed the Black Widow’s secrets and it caused various heroes to question why we even have that thing? That’d be food for thought.

Here, though, we just get something we’re expected to recognize and then it blows up.

The Winter Soldier fails as a political movie by failing to take any side or stand on the issues it raises. It succeeds as a political-tinged action flick—but that’s all. It’s nether (really) left wing nor right wing—it’s just exciting.

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