When I saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier, I was expecting an action movie. Hopefully, a good one. And yes, it is that. But I didn't expect to see a dramatic political thriller, one which attacks the policies of the Obama administration, labeling them immoral and illegal. In our time of lawless militarism and mass spying, brainwashing propaganda and looming global catastrophe, it's a comfort when political allegories offer dramatic stories that inspire us towards real-world solutions.
It turns out that such a story, an allegory for our time, is what the co-directors intended from the start.
According to a review in Mother Jones magazine, Joe Russo, who co-directed the film with his brother Anthony Russo, were asked by Marvel to make a political thriller out of the second Captain American film. Joe Russo told Mother Jones that he and his brother, “. . . 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.”
Coinciding the with release of NSA documents by Edward Snowden, this film creates a scenario like what is actually happening with U.S. policy in the real world: killing people without due process, with drones and other airstrikes, who are deemed to be a threat to the United States; massive data mining amounting to general search warrants prohibited by the Fourth Amendment; mass murder of people in foreign lands; and relying on military technology rather than law to prevent conflict. And the film links U.S. policies to Hitler's Nazi regime, in an echo of U.S. recruiting Nazi scientists such as Wernher von Braun, Kurt H. Debus and Arthur Rudolph..
The protagonists are, of course, Captain America, a.k.a., "Steve Rogers; Agent Romanoff, played by Scarlett Johansson; and their allies.
The antagonists are not just the Robert Redford character, Alexander Pierce, and SHIELD's Nick Fury, played by Samuel L. Jackson, but The System itself and its other evil supporters.
In a flashback to a previous film rich in political allegory, Robert Redford was asked to play a role, in part, because he was the protagonist in the thriller Three Days of the Condor, which also critiqued the lawless policies of spying and murder from the era of the 1970s. Redford accepted the role, because he wanted "to experience this new form of filmmaking that's taken over where you have kind of cartoon characters brought to life through high technology."
The release of the Condor film in 1975, coincided with the investigations of Senator Frank Church into somewhat similar crimes, including murder in the form of assassinations of foreign leaders. In that film, Redford plays a Snowden-like analyst confronting the system and its lawless violence and quest for global dominance.
In this film, Redford's character, Alexander Pierce, is a criminal bad guy like the actual U.S. Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, who inspired Edward Snowden into action through his blatant lie to Congress about spying on millions of Americans on response to a question by Oregon Senator Ron Wyden.
The review in Mother Jones quoted director Joe Russo saying, "If there are 100 people we can kill to make us safer, do we do it? What if we find out there's 1,000? What if we find out there's 10,000? What if it's a million? At what point do you stop?"
This is a deliberate attempt to create an allegory, which critiques and condemns lawless and immoral policies of mass murder. As Captain America states in the trailer shown with this review, "I thought the punishment usually came after the crime." Of the policy, Captain America says, "This isn't freedom. This is fear."
As the story unfolds, it artfully blends action and political drama, with a compelling, thriller of a story. I'd rather not go into details of the story for those who have yet to see it. I can say without spoiling the story that I enjoyed its relevance as an allegory for our time along the lines of the films The Day the Earth Stood Still (both versions), Avatar, The Hunger Games films, Divergence. Man of Steel, Star Trek's Borg episodes, and Minority Report, among others.
In the real world, the system of governance and control led by the tyrannical U.S. government actually threatens the viability of civilization across the Earth. As this system continues to dominate American and most of the world—whether we call it the "World Community," or the "military industrial complex" or "the American empire"—it conflicts with those of us who prefer lawful, political, morally sound approaches to resolving conflicts towards living sustainably in this world. Sadly, the system-as-it-is remains on a tragic trajectory towards growing warfare, increasing economic inequality, and ultimately, overshoot-and-collapse resulting ecocide—the sixth extinction. The end of civilization as we know it. Let us reverse course as Captain America illustrates.
This film then succeeds, both at the level of a movie-with-a-message, and also as fantastic, enjoyable, exciting entertainment.
Films such as Captain America: The Winter Soldier and its various allegorical partners have a helpful, cumulative effect. Not only are they fun, they also show protagonists—our heroes—confronting systems of illegitimate, immoral, lawless power, and defeating them. Let us watch and absorb the message: everything is at stake; there are real enemies to be defeated; and there are principles and values to guide us in the fight for a future we can enjoy.