Movies for the Resistance: Captain America — The Winter Soldier

(Welcome to Movies for the Resistance, a weekly column intended to showcase films with particular pertinence for 2017. One of the fundamental purposes of art in general, and movies in particular, is to serve as a spiritual armory: bringing hope, timely lessons and shared experiences when times are dark. They can move us to positive political action, lend insight to the inexplicable, and sometimes just give us a moment to remember that we’re not alone. I’m hoping to embrace as many genres and subjects as possible here: nothing is out of bounds and the plan is to vary the content as much as I can from week to week. But all of them are chosen for the same basic purpose: to support, comfort and inspire as we enter a troubling new phase in our nation’s history. We’ll showcase a new film every Tuesday.)

Starring: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Frank Grillo, Cobie Smulders and Robert Redford
Directed by: Joe and Anthony Russo
Running time: 136 minutes
Rating: PG-13
Year of release: 2014


There’s a horrifying fascination at watching the craven paralysis of the GOP in the face of various (and constant) monstrosities from their president. I originally intended to cite Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accords as the catalyst for this entry, but true to our current reality, that’s so last week. Now we have his bungling response to Saturday’s terrorist attack in London, topped by the indefensible condemnation of “pathetic excuse of a mayor” Sadiq Khan for urging calm in the midst of heightened police presence in the city. It merely marks the latest in what one pundit called “the omnishambles”: total, staggering catastrophic failure from one end of the administration to the other.

And yet for every blunder, for every infantile tweet, for every ally shoved under the bus or self-inflicted wound tainting our nation’s legacy, Republicans close ranks around him. Some resort to mealy-mouthed non-condemnations of the “that’s inappropriate” variety, but in general, the president – and what we laughingly refer to as his agenda – takes clear precedent in their minds over anything resembling the best interests of the country.

Trump didn’t arise in a vacuum, of course, and the current rolling train wreck he commands benefits from decades of of propagandistic hate, where political power for its own sake took on newer and more cowardly forms every few months. The cancer spread, the poison festered, and by the time Trump set up his circus tent in the crater, the political institution he co-opted couldn’t muster any meaningful resistance. Thus have we been treated to the sight of Senators and Congressmen trying (and sometimes not even bothering) to justify the kinds of grotesqueries that used to result in public floggings.

The strength of mythic figures like Captain America becomes all the clearer in circumstances like these: the way they can highlight all-too-normal human behavior beneath their colorful trappings. Sinister Nazi conspiracies and evil scientists lurking on computer hard drives just serve to draw attention to a far more mundane truth: bucking the system takes guts. Strip away the snazzy outfits and the message is clear.

Cap’s creators felt quite strongly that dissent was patriotic, and in the wake of Watergate he actually renounced his connection to the U.S. government. Why? Because he embodies the ideals of America, not the wishes of those in charge, which gave him the ability to criticize his own government when it crossed the boundaries of acceptable behavior.

It made for a powerful statement, and as the MCU really got rolling, the notion proved far too tempting for Kevin Feige & Co. to let pass. Hence, The Winter Soldier, still regarded as the high point of the franchise so far and certainly the one with the most telling lessons for those still waffling over the crisis created by Donald J. Trump.

Cap’s real superpowers have nothing to do with the shield or the super-soldier serum. They come from his moral compass. The MCU has thrived in part because Chris Evans conveys that so beautifully and because the filmmakers ensure that absolute moral clarity doesn’t interfere with making him an interesting character. The Winter Soldier pits him against his old pal Bucky Barnes (Sepastian Stan), now a brainwashed assassin working at the behest of HYDRA. The Red Skull’s former organization has wrapped their tendrils around SHIELD as well – infiltrating it over the course of decades until it now secretly serves their interested – and intend to use it as the leverage to finally take control of the world.

The comic book trappings remain in place more for show than anything else. Cap’s real dilemma comes from turning on an organization he thought he could trust: one that provided him with a home and a purpose after he came out of the ice, and who he worked for – and even forgave them a certain amount of sneaky weasel behavior – with the belief that they were ultimately doing right.

But he never lets that blind him to the purpose they served. He never lets loyalty to their mission compromise his ethics. He sees wrong for what it is. He smells a rat when voices admonish him to just let it pass. And even before HYDRA’s sleepers bum rush him in that elevator (still one of the best fight scenes in the whole of the MCU), he knows the path he has to take.

It seems so easy: a principled man drawing a line for what’s right and facing down the consequences without blinking. And yet we’ve seen, to our national disgrace, how hard it can be to translate a fictitious force of conscience into real action. The excuses bubble up, allowing people who should know better to quietly look away and write themselves a free pass. “It’ll be worth it to get that Supreme Court justice.” “At least he makes those libtards cry.” “Who needs Europe anyway?”

When that doesn’t work, they result to moral equivalency arguments of the “everyone’s corrupt so who cares?” variety, or else hide behind the institutions themselves. “He’s our president.” “He won fair and square” “Just give him a chance.” The longer that continues, the easier it gets to just accept it. The ephemeral myth of a greater good becomes wallpaper to cover every horrible act until nothing beneath it really matters. The amazing part about The Winter Soldier is how much of the villainous behavior onscreen – supposedly the stuff of funnybook fiction – translates to real life (and in only marginally less dire circumstances to boot).

In the movie, we’re faced with Alexander Pence, played by Robert Redford with quiet dignity and a voice that infers moral clarity and due deliberation. Turns out, he’s pure evil on a stick, something that Rogers and Rogers alone notices for what it is. In the meantime, however, he fools a lot of people, including Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) with his supposed down-to-earth realism. “To build a better world sometimes means having to tear the old one down,” he tells the Captain in tones that sound perfectly reasonable and understandable. Circumstances are never ideal, you go to war with the army you have, we all make compromises, etc.

It makes for a quick and easy path, one that allows too many people to ignore all manner of unacceptable behavior provided they just stop thinking about it. The film’s heroes – Fury, the Widow and a couple of others – eventually wake up to that fact, but even they need someone to take a stand first. That’s Rogers’ job, and certainly, we expect Captain America to smell a rat no matter where he is. But those around him don’t – indeed most of them want him to get with the program, at least initially – and when he makes the call, he makes it alone.

That’s in keeping with the way the MCU has developed Rogers’ character. Captain America is, in essence, no different as the paragon of superheroic patriotism than he was as that asthmatic little runt who got beat up by a noisy theater patron. He spoke up then, knowing he would likely get pounded, and didn’t hesitate. He placed principle in front of convenience. He doesn’t change just because he can knock people through walls or carry a snazzy shield. He still knows wrong when he sees it, and acts accordingly.

The journey in the film comes less from him than from figures like Fury, who finally start to understand that when Cap says “not on your life,” it involves more than just Boy Scout posturing. There’s a cost to looking the other way, and Rogers knows that in some ways, it will never be the same if you do. Fury and Romanoff need to set their cynicism aside and actively oppose an organization that now serves itself to the detriment of anything else.

They can’t do that until he reminds them what they’re supposed to be fighting for.

They can’t see the truth until one of their own steps up and says “everybody out of the pool.”

We’re still waiting for that figure to emerge in the GOP. We’re waiting for someone in a position of clout and authority to say “enough.” As of this writing, that hasn’t happened and it may never happen… which is all the more reason to condemn the cowardice they evince every day.

Chances are, nothing those of us on the outside will say can change their minds. The GOP has performed its political calculus, and won’t budge until the prescribed “proper moment.” Every time they do, the damage spreads a little further. Every time they stand silent or issue their cowardly third-way bullshit, the corruption grows a little deeper. Sometimes, it only takes one person in the right position to take a stand. That can start an avalanche… and turn a nobody into a hero in the blink of an eye. History is watching and waiting for someone to see the truth, and for others to follow when they do.

That hasn’t happened yet on the GOP side: neither the politicians bound to Trump nor their supporters who stubbornly tell us he’s doing a swell job. Again, that’s their choice, and at the end of the day, only they can make it.

But Captain Rogers is very disappointed in them. And one day — long after they can do anything about it — they’re going to realize just what a mistake that is.

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