Saturday, April 26, 2014

Movie Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo. 2014.

spoilers noted below

How does the director of You, Me, and Dupree end up directing Captain America 2? At least the writing team, who penned Michael Bay's Pain and Gain, had written other Marvel movies, but when the producers, editors, composer, cinematographers, and casting directors have all been kept in the Marvel house, who thought to hire the Russos? Whoever did, give them a hand because Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a leap forward for the franchise and a novel, mature story in the Marvel universe.

Dispensing with the mythological setting of the Thor series, the supernatural dimensions of The Avengers, the outlandish sight of The Hulk, and Robert Downey's rakish charm that holds Iron Man together, Captain America was always poised to be the most grounded and sober Marvel hero, a potential Captain 2 realizes. The script steers clear of the conservative plot of the first installment, a plain old goodies-versus-baddies romp, in favor of a complex plot of intrigue, political maneuvering, and betrayal. We appreciate this twist for several reasons, the first of which is as variety. It's refreshing to see a sequel which doesn't simply ape the success of its predecessor. Second, the complexity feels like an escalation from the simple world of World War II's clear-cut good guys and bad guys into a world of operatives, secrets, secret sub-organizations, and moral ambiguity. Third, the complexity allows Captain America, essentially the sole survivor of the previous movie, to take center stage as a hero, who is a point of moral stability and historical continuity, and as a protagonist with whom we empathize as a man-out-of-time.

Direction and production support the shift as well. The tone of Captain 2 is essentially that of a Bourne movie, that is to say, it's predominately serious, poised on weary. Yes, there's lighthearted humor in the banter between Captain Rogers and Black Widow, and in the subplot about Captain America catching up on pop culture he's missed, but for the most part the Captain is taking pretty seriously the fact that people are out to kill him and take over the world.

Visually the movie is dark and gray, with the only splash of color coming from the star-spangled outfit of Captain America himself, a pleasing symmetry between the story and style. Also like the Bourne movies, Captain 2 eschews extended fight sequences for shorter ones which punctuate the movie more often. This size and pacing give the movie a satisfying ebb and flow instead of an avalanche of action, and after the traditional heist opening the action scenes shrink down before they escalate up to the finale. The most noticeable stylistic shift from both the previous installment and its Marvel siblings is the realism of the violence. No, it's not gory at all, but we sense Captain America's power and the brutality of his blows. We're leagues away from zapping Nazis and romping around whacking aliens when in shaky close-ups and realistic sound we see Captain America breaking bones and pounding people into bulkheads. Without the cliche line, we sense that his power is a responsibility, a fact which silently reinforces the moral dilemmas of the plot.


That plot is worth talking about, too, much to my surprise and delight.  Captain 2 centers around the mystery of who infiltrated the global defense force S.H.I.E.L.D and killed Director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson.) The reveal is traditional but handled with competence as we and the Captain discover whom to trust, which becomes the film's first theme: the necessity of trust in society. Can Captain Rogers trust Black Widow, with her checkered past and loyalty to S.H.I.E.L.D? Can he trust Fury, with all of his secrets and machinations? Can he trust S.H.I.E.L.D members and operatives? Should he trust the members of the Security Council, both as individuals and as officials who oversee Fury? Does he trust council-member Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) as an individual, as an official, and as Fury's old buddy who wants to avenge his fallen ally? The bottom question here is whether all the checks and balances, hierarchy, and bureaucracy can be so effective as to legitimize so much secrecy, dissimulation, and manipulation which make trust impossible. Do you trust individuals, the system, or the plan?

We hold all of these rhetorical questions in mind even before S.H.I.E.L.D is compromised. At that point, Captain America is off on an adventure to unravel the plot which fiends S.H.I.E.L.D's nemesis, Hydra, not only resurgent, but slithering its tentacles throughout S.H.I.E.L.D. The outing of the conspiracy though, done with a cliche writing trope which we overlook because it's done with a novel visual, puts a different spin on our question of trust. We learn that Hydra's first attempt to take over from within the Nazi party failed because the world pushed back against tyranny. Learning from that mistake, they've infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D so they can destabilize the world and make is so chaotic that citizens will run to a protector. "We learned that people need to give up their freedom willingly," says a member of Hydra. What a troubling thought: how and to what degree are S.H.I.E.L.D and the Nazis similar that Hydra could act through them both?

These two themes–personal trust and institutional trust–are developed in two contrasting pairs of characters. The first pair is Nick Fury and Alexander Pierce. Fury believes in the tools of the spy and military trade as prudential compromises. He has no fanatical belief in control and secrets, but uses them because he thinks the end justifies the means. On the other side, Pierce wants to use S.H.I.E.L.D's vast resources not to react to threats as Fury does, but to prevent them by murdering whomever they deem a probable threat. Both men want the same power, in this case a trio of flying aircraft carriers with essentially unlimited surveillance and assassination ability, but have different purposes. Whom do we trust? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

On the ground we have the soldiers, Captain Rogers and The Winter Soldier, who respectively answer to Fury and Pierce. Rogers flat out disagrees even with Fury, to whom he reports, and perhaps only serves him as the lesser of evils. I was taken aback at the frankness of Rogers' dissent when early in the film upon seeing Fury's new fleet, Rogers says, "You want to put a gun to the world's head and call it freedom. This isn't freedom, it's fear." When Fury replies that he's preventing problems, Rogers snaps back, "Doesn't the punishment come after the crime?" This sudden interjection of and deference to the rule of law has teeth because it's in such contrast to the far-off reaches of spying to which they (and we?) have come.

Yet Rogers doesn't just follow orders. He thinks for himself and evaluates based on his own principles, in contrast to the Winter Soldier, who's being programmed by Hydra. The Winter Soldier is made an automaton to follow Hydra's commands without question, and the scene of his torturous reprogramming is a terrible visualization of what's taking place whenever we choose not to think for ourselves.

Alas, the plot has two endings, one to Captain America 2 and Rogers' story, and another to Captain America 2 as a Marvel movie. The first is superior and twofold, the second an unnecessary coda.

The first of the two proper conclusions to Captain America 2 sees the assent to Rogers' philosophy when the regrouped team of trusted S.H.I.E.L.D agents concludes that all the carries have to go. We still wonder, though, did the policy invite the men, or did the men invent the policy? Yet one scene belies an anarchic interpretation of the choice to scrap the whole program. When Rogers broadcasts across the S.H.I.E.L.D headquarters what Pierce has done and who has been compromised, one of Pierce's lackeys puts a gun to the head of the engineer who can go ahead with the launch. The little pipsqueak, though, stands up to the thug and refuses to proceed with the launch. There is in S.H.I.E.L.D as in any body politic, good and bad, and S.H.I.E.L.D like any group is no better than the virtue of those who inhabit it.

This scene, along with an earlier one in which the agents reassigned to take out Rogers demand to know whey they're hunting a hero, are a vindication of the Captain's own individualist freethinking. They're also a prelude to the self-sacrifice and trust of Rogers' final confrontation with his nemesis.

With the mission completed and realizing The Winter Soldier is really his old friend Bucky Barnes, Rogers throws up his hands and refuses to kill Bucky. Rogers doesn't risk the mission or anyone else, but only himself by choosing to trust that his former friend, ally, and brother would come to his senses and not harm him. When Bucky pulls him from the wreckage of the carrier, this is Rogers' truest victory, the victory of trust over fear, and choice over force, the victory of Captain America.

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