There were a few vocal members of the audience at my screening that took great umbrage with Robert Redford. To be fair his Secretary Pierce is a plot contraption who only delivers lengthy exposition coded in politician-speak. Nothing tests the patience of an action film’s audience more. If anything though Robert Redford brought this on himself. Like contemporary Warren Beatty, he was much too selective in choosing roles when a certifiable A-Lister. If you’ve spent the past two decades sporadically appearing in safe and forgettable films don’t expect audiences to come you. I’d love to see Redford role the dice in his remaining career. Take a page from Alec Guinness and Paul Newman who found some of their best roles on the junk-end of pop culture (Star Wars and Slap Shot, respectively).
If Redford could not get due deference from those few in my audience, he gets perhaps too much from his co stars. His scenes have an almost metafictional quality. Nick Fury is Nick Fury for most of the film, but when locking stares with Redford he is clearly “Samuel L Jackson playing Nick Fury”. Likewise our Captain America and Black Widow become “Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson, young actors who have not yet paid all their dues.”
Yet Redford’s presence is worth it for the film. The Winter Soldier has huge ambitions, and it's not enough to limit its scope to the film itself. No, a film like this must contextualize its role in society. Through Redford the plot parallels to “Three Days of the Condor” become explicit. In both films a secret government agent becomes a fugitive from his organization, hunted by both the good guys and the bad for unwittingly stumbling onto a conspiracy. Both films end with a data dump to the bastions of free speech of their day: The New York Times then, and the Internet now (it’s trends well on Twitter).
In Condor all the conspiracy boils down to a deliberately anti climatic economic cause (spoiler: it’s about oil), in The Winter Soldier the cause is positively anachronistic. Hydra, the eviler-than-Nazis (their words, not mine) terrorist organization has spent decades infiltrating SHIELD, getting into the top ranks. There they foment terror while simultaneously combating it with extreme prejudice. Their stated goal is convince society to abandon freedoms for greater perceived security. Now that we live in a world where every street corner is videotaped, and every phone call bugged, Hydra feels their time is nigh. Even the Bond films have given up on secret organizations bent on world domination by this point. It’s a quaint concept that any single individual or group would want to govern this mess of a planet.
The Winter Soldier never divulges the recruitment tactics for Hydra. I imagine that the stated goal “spreading terror across the world” would not yield too many candidates who could also infiltrate the top ranks of a government agency. But this isn’t even addressed within the film. All around, although the tech and government have grown more intricate, character’s motivations remain surprisingly simplistic and straightforward. So when a Hydra officer says he’s in it to spread terror, I guess that’s all there is to it. Hydra doesn’t even have to offer a medical plan. It’s balanced by Captain America and his band of confidants, The Black Widow and Falcon, who also explain their unwavering support in wide-eyed cringe-worthy statements about loyalty and national pride.
Drone warfare is the bugaboo that concerns Winter Soldier. SHIELD has constructed three massive helicarriers--think flying aircraft carriers--that also double as drones carrying an army’s worth of weapons. Once these go in the air, they’ll never need to come down and their automated targeting systems are so precise that they can identify and kill individual people from thousands of feet in the air. The message of the film seems to caution that while American fingers are on the trigger today, that won’t always be the case. This technology can and will wind up in the hands of enemies, and before too long non-state actors. Drone warfare may then be akin to chemical and nuclear warfare: too dangerous to be used.
Left unsaid, possibly out of the scope of this picture, are the other moral quandaries of drone warfare. Like should any threat be considered a target? Is it okay to target an elected official that supports terrorism? I’ve lived through the era of smart bombs and unmanned precision drones where munitions were so “intelligent” that they knew to use the door of the houses they bombed. While more precise than dropping explosives out of B-52s, I’ve yet to see a period where civilians weren’t turned to casualties in these raids despite the supposed intelligence of the equipment. The only thing that’s really gotten smarter is terminology used to explain away “collateral damage”.
But I digress. It's time to tip my hat to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The first batch of films played remarkably safe both in narrative and message, but the runaway success of the Avengers gave the component franchises carte blanche to broaden their scope and challenge the status quo. Now Iron Man can have PTSD, and Captain America can be a pawn of enemies of the state.
There’s still a lot of action here, and thankfully Winter Soldier abandons the Paul Greengras style edit-pasta that could transform Matt Damon into a martial-arts master. We often see bodies engaged in combat shot in full. Close-ups and edit trickery just for effect, otherwise the combatants are granted physical weight in their environment. Punches hurt. Falls hurt. It’s more believable that Captain America could knock out a person with a single punch when the audience sees their body fly back five feet from the impact.
“Captain America: The First Avenger” was the only dud in the current Marvel crop. Three movies crammed into two hours, each fighting to promote the upcoming Avengers at the expense of developing a solid narrative of its own. Still the scope was admirable. The Winter Soldier only increased the sprawl of the narrative, but this is a film concerned only with itself, other Marvel properties be damned (take that, “Agents of SHIELD”), and in the process becomes a highlight of the Marvel Cinema Universe. Is it the strongest film? Not by my vote, but it belongs in the conversation.