Winter Soldier vs. Libertarian Warrior
Here at Poletical, we often write about current events and politics with a libertarian bent. As anyone who tries to articulate libertarian ideas knows, it can be difficult to do so without coming off as fringe. Even though many people live relatively libertarian lives, they find the broader concepts scary. This is a testament to the success that authoritarians have had in convincing people that more government is the answer. Whether it’s strident liberals trying to force everyone to live as strident liberals, or diligent social conservatives trying to convince everyone to live as diligent social conservatives...the general trend of “command and control” is increasingly at odds with traditional concepts of liberty and freedom.
Which is why I was pleasantly surprised at the arrival of a popular movie this year that runs contrary to prevailing cultural thought. In fact, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is not only a massive box office hit, it’s the most powerful manifesto for libertarian conservatism in modern cinematic history.
#1. The movie directly links authoritarianism with oppression.
Many movies, especially during the Bush years, tried to link the growing sense of national security infrastructure with a creeping police state. These movies usually portrayed the United States as morally suspect and full of shadowy characters doing Nazi-like things.
In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the point is made completely clear. Creeping authoritarianism isn’t just Nazi-like...it is Nazi. Resist creeping authoritarianism with everything you’ve got, because no matter the rationale, the people telling you what to do and how to live are all the same.
Robert Redford plays Alexander Pierce, one of the top dogs leading an espionage organization called S.H.I.E.L.D. For multiple Marvel movies now, audiences have seen S.H.I.E.L.D portrayed as a well-meaning, umbrella organization dealing with the crazy events taking place in these films. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the whole organization is revealed to be compromised. The infrastructure used to ensure world security is about to be used to ensure world enslavement. Redford’s Pierce, understands the implications and accepts them...with a little too much glee.
Around the halfway mark, Steve Rogers, AKA - Captain America, played by Chris Evans and Natasha Romanoff, AKA - The Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson, uncover the true history of S.H.I.E.L.D in a brilliant monologue by former Nazi (HYDRA) scientist Arnim Zola...now a consciousness inside of a 1970’s super computer…
Dr. Zola: HYDRA was founded on the belief that humanity could not be trusted with its own freedom. What we did not realize was that if you tried to take that freedom, they resist. The war taught us much. Humanity needed to surrender its freedom willingly. After the war, S.H.I.E.L.D. was founded, and I was recruited. The new HYDRA grew, a beautiful parasite inside S.H.I.E.L.D. For 70 years, HYDRA has been secretly feeding crises, reaping war. And when history did not cooperate, history was changed...HYDRA created a world so chaotic that humanity is finally ready to sacrifice its freedom to gain its security. Once the purification process is complete, HYDRA's New World Order will arise. We won, Captain. Your death amounts to the same as your life, a zero sum!
A New World Order is always on someone’s agenda and whenever it’s uttered it leads to no good. In the film, Captain America, with his 1940’s sensibilities, is constantly skeptical of any argument in favour of authoritarianism...no matter how reasonable or intelligent it sounds. By the end of the film we bear witness to the reality of “enlightened security” in the form of gunpoint commands, murder, and attempted mass genocide. A generation of young film goers have just been introduced to a narrative of anti-libertarian outcomes, that only Captain America’s libertarian values were able to stop.
#2. The movie directly links security as the opposite of freedom.
Too many people in the modern world are beset with apathy. When governments around the world overstep their traditional roles in the name of security, many people shrug and accept the new normal. From internet spying, to warrantless searches, to 24/7 cameras on the streets...we are all succombing to the surveillance state. Many people feel the advances are benign...designed to keep them safe. One of the big messages of the movie is that infrastructure used to keep people safe, can easily be used to keep people oppressed.
“Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.” -Benjamin Franklin
A key scene in the film is when Nick Fury, played by Samuel L. Jackson takes Captain America into the sub-levels of S.H.I.E.L.D headquarters and reveals new flying aircraft carriers loaded to the brim with heavy weapons…
Nick Fury: (Looking at the new helicarriers) These new long range precision guns can eliminate a thousand hostiles a minute. The satellites can read a terrorist's DNA before he steps outside his spider hole. We gonna neutralize a lot of threats before they even happen.
Steve Rogers: I thought the punishment usually came after the crime.
Nick Fury: We can't afford to wait that long.
Steve Rogers: Who's "we"?
Nick Fury: After New York, I convinced the World Security Council we needed a quantum surge on threat analysis. For once we're way ahead of the curve.
Steve Rogers: By holding a gun at everyone on Earth and calling it protection.
Nick Fury: You know, I read those SSR files. Greatest generation? You guys did some nasty stuff.
Steve Rogers: Yeah, we compromised. Sometimes in ways that made us not sleep so well. But we did it so the people could be free. This isn't freedom, this is fear.
Nick Fury: SHIELD takes the world as it is, not as we'd like it to be. It's getting damn near past time for you to get with that program, Cap.
Steve Rogers: Don't hold your breath.
When someone offers security, people need to ask what the costs are and, more importantly, what the potential costs are. This movie illustrates the trade-off in spectacular fashion for a whole new generation of kids.
#3. The movie depicts anti-authority rebellion as heroic.
Once Captain America and his small team of allies is singled out for elimination, they cobble together a plan to destroy the establishment. Audiences watch as a handful of freedom loving heroes risk everything to stop the authorities from gaining total power. Near the end of the film Captain America takes over the public address system in S.H.I.E.L.D headquarters and makes a plea for help…
Steve Rogers: Attention all S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, this is Steve Rogers. You've heard a lot about me over the last few days. Some of you were even ordered to hunt me down. But I think it's time to tell the truth. S.H.I.E.L.D. is not what we thought it was. It's been taken over by HYDRA. Alexander Pierce is their leader. The S.T.R.I.K.E. and Insight crew are HYDRA as well. I don't know how many more, but I know they're in the building. They could be standing right next to you. They almost have what they want. Absolute control. They shot Nick Fury. And it won't end there. If you launch those helicarriers today, HYDRA will be able to kill anyone that stands in their way. Unless we stop them. I know I'm asking a lot. But the price of freedom is high. It always has been. And it's a price I'm willing to pay. And if I'm the only one, then so be it. But I'm willing to bet I'm not.
At this point the lines are drawn and characters throughout the building chose to just do their jobs and follow orders...or rebel with Captain America. The climax results in lot’s of explosions and gunfights and ass kicking of course. Captain America and friends save the day and stop the bad guys, but the symbolism throughout the final twenty minutes is amazingly over-the-top. Examples?
Steve Rogers dons his vintage 1940’s World War 2 Captain America uniform, symbolising an old fashion U.S.A...and then goes on a tear against his former modern organization. Robert Redford’s Pierce uses modern politician rhetoric to justify international security, all the while holding hostages at gunpoint. Soviet-styled Winter Soldier, played by Sebastian Stan, is literally a sleeper agent who shows up and starts murdering anyone on Captain America’s side.
There’s enough meaning in this film to keep film study majors busy for weeks. However, that’s not the main focus. The main focus is a good, old fashioned action/adventure film that entertains an audience. The subtext is just the libertarian gravy.
Conclusion: Audiences turned out for Captain America: The Winter Soldier in droves. The movie made over $700 million and is currently #1 for 2014 at the North American box office. On the surface, people are enjoying a fun action/adventure romp with colourful characters and big special effects, but the messages the movie is subtly sending is one of strident libertarian values. These values will resonate more deeply in popular culture than anything Ayn Rand has ever written. Why? Two reasons.
#1. The values are camouflaged in the packaging. People watching Captain America: The Winter Soldier aren’t in the theatre for the messaging. They want to see an exciting story with good special effects. The messages are delivered covertly. The themes and values are displayed implicitly, not explicitly. This allows people to experience the values rather than be lectured by them.
#2. Libertarian values need not be complicated. The Ayn Rand philosophy style debates amongst deep thinkers alienates common people. A movie like Captain America: the Winter Soldier can be watched and understood by children. The values unfold in the story. They are shown, not told. A generation of kids will grow up watching this film and they’ll understand the message even if they can’t articulate it. You want to be like Captain America? Trust your friends, think for yourself, believe in freedom. Timeless tales that will influence our culture in the long run.
Captain America is set to return in next year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. The plot? Billionaire-industrialist Tony Stark - AKA Iron Man, played by real life conservative Robert Downey Jr., takes it upon himself to finance a superhero team which effectively privatizes international security. The villain? A totalitarian robot that wants to save us from ourselves...requiring mass murder and iron fisted oppression of course. Marvel’s libertarian breeding ground continues…
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is released on Blu-ray and DVD, September 9th.