Libertarianism in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

I finally got around to seeing Captain America: The Winter Soldier on Friday night. I enjoyed it immensely. Although there are the requisite comic book elements, it felt more like an action movie/political thriller. Without giving away too much of the plot, Steve Rogers finds himself caught in a web of lies and political conspiracies. He doesn’t know who to trust and several of his former allies have turned against him. He begins to question what he has been fighting for and whether or not he can, in good conscience, carry out the missions he’s assigned. In addition, The Winter Soldier is one of the most libertarian films I’ve seen. It doesn’t bludgeon you over the head with its message — it isn’t Atlas Shrugged with superheroes — but it does present a relatively sophisticated articulation of libertarian philosophy. That’s quite an achievement for an entertaining comic book movie. More on this below.

As for the film itself, it’s difficult to discuss without getting into spoiler territory. So from here on, all bets are off. In general terms, however, it really succeeds as an action movie. The action beats are well-shot and are, more or less, realistic. The filmmakers are clearly taking the material seriously. There’s no trace of camp or self-awareness, even when handling material that could easily have looked silly. This is a very earnest treatment. The actors involved, especially Robert Redford, lend a real gravitas to the project. Chris Evans is thoroughly believable as Steve Rogers/Captain America. Scarlett Johansson does her best work of the Marvel franchise in this film. It’s definitely an ensemble effort with Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, and, of course, Samuel L. Jackson rounding out the cast. Everybody performs to a very high caliber.

Although it clocks in at 136 minutes, it’s well-paced and none of the scenes feel like filler. The conspiracy plot is effective and there are plenty of red herrings to keep you guessing. Arguably, there may be a few too many twists that audiences — especially those familiar with the source material — will see coming, but that didn’t diminish the impact for me. After all, the characters don’t see it coming, and the actors sell that, so the reveals work. I’m also saying this as someone who read the Winter Soldier storyline in the comics a few years ago, so I was already privy to the spoilers. Nevertheless, I was fully engaged in the story.

It’s not a perfect movie, of course. The Helicarriers are easily reprogrammed by inserting a piece of hardware into the ‘mainframe.’ In addition, there’s a lot of the usual ‘computer hacking’ silliness we’ve come to expect from Hollywood. But that’s a minor quibble that’s easily forgiven. It’s even justifiable insofar as it reinforces the juxtaposition between Cap’s analogue world and our digital one. Despite its flaws — which are intrinsic to the genre — Captain America: The Winter Soldier is, in my opinion, the best film of the Marvel franchise, just edging out Iron Man. It’s easily the best sequel of the series.

But the movie doesn’t just succeed as an entertaining action flick. It works as an indictment of the reigning political paradigm. In short, it’s a pro-libertarian film. If you’ve seen it, I don’t think that statement will be controversial. You may, of course, disagree with its libertarian message, but it’s hard to deny that it’s there. In my judgment, this is the right direction for the series. In fact, one of my criticisms of Agents of SHIELD when it first aired, was that it was too sanguine about the potential evil of such a powerful, covert agency. I’m not current with the series, so that might have changed, but the episodes I watched were alarmingly out of touch with the times, and especially with younger audiences. The show basically portrayed government agencies as good and freedom of information activists as bad. Thankfully, The Winter Soldier goes a long way towards correcting that perception. However, it does so in a surprisingly subtle way; not everyone involved in SHIELD is bad, but such an organization has the capacity to do great evil.

The way this message plays out in the plot, is that SHIELD is attempting to launch weaponized Helicarriers that can assess and eliminate threats before they develop. They are willing to trade liberty and civil rights for security. Ironically, in attempting to make the world safe for democracy, SHIELD is prepared to undermine democracy’s very foundation. As Cap remarks to Fury: “This isn’t freedom. It’s fear.” Or, as Benjamin Franklin said: “Those who sacrifice liberty for security will find they have neither.” Unbeknownst to Fury, however, Hydra has secretly infiltrated SHIELD and is steering its operations. The lack of transparency — ‘compartmentalization’ as Fury calls it — has enabled Hydra to seize control.

There’s a great scene in which Cap and Natasha encounter Dr. Zola — whose mind has been uploaded into an old-school computer bank — who explains that Hydra realized after WWII that people naturally resist having their freedom taken away. They must be convinced that freedom is dangerous. They must give it up willingly; they must be convinced that doing so is the only way to remain safe. This message resonates in a post-911, post-Patriot Act, post-Wikileaks world. Captain America, however, recognizes that the ‘price of freedom is high’ and is unwilling to trade liberty for security, especially when such security is an illusion.

Captain America is a libertarian with respect to the limits of government power. He realizes that too much state power can be pernicious. He realizes that the real enemies of freedom are not ‘terrorists’, but those who claim to be fighting on behalf of freedom while simultaneously undermining it. In the end, he realizes that he has to fight against that system in order to preserve his ideals. Ironically, this makes Captain America, a symbol of the state, a fugitive from the state. This symbolic reversal gives the lie to the notion that patriotism requires simply going along with the program. Rather, as Henry David Thoreau once said, “The highest form of patriotism is dissent.”

The film’s message also gives the lie to the oft repeated mantra that democratic governments can’t be oppressive, because the government is us. There are several problems with this slogan. Of course, the government does not simply reflect the will of the people, but even if it did, and the majority of people were willing to give up their civil liberties in the interest of security, that wouldn’t make it less oppressive. The democratic tradition has long recognized ‘the tyranny of the majority’ and that even democratic governments can be oppressive. Simply because democratic governments have a better track record in this regard, doesn’t mean that they can’t oppress. Indeed, the reason they have a better track record is that they operate on the assumption that power corrupts and that checks and balances should be in place to prevent any government from becoming too powerful.

Another problem with ‘the government is us’ argument is that it assumes that all levels of government exemplify the transparency we associate with democratic systems. Of course, this simply isn’t true. In the case of Captain America, a covert agency which trades in secrets and lies, has been given carte blanche to steer the administration in ways that aren’t democratic. By contrast, it is trying to stamp out dissent. Granted, this is an overstatement for dramatic effect in the film. Personally, I’m skeptical of the many conspiracy theories that are popularly associated with the libertarian movement. I don’t see government conspiracies and cover-ups everywhere. Nevertheless, in the wake of Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations, one would have to be hopelessly naive to think that ‘the government is us’ or that such surveillance is good for democratic values. In fact, quite the opposite. As Snowden has said, the NSA even keeps track of who is having an affair or looking at pornography in case they need to damage their target’s reputation. This makes character assassination — if not actual assassination as in the film — a trivially easy matter. How is such meticulous control over the democratic process by unelected and unaccountable agencies healthy for any democracy? The Winter Soldier makes this point quite eloquently, albeit in the exaggerated way we’d expect of a comic book action movie. Still, we shouldn’t reject its core message due to its heightened dramatic sense.

In summary, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is one of those rare movies that works both as popcorn entertainment and deeper social and political commentary. Just as it urges us not to sacrifice freedom for security, it doesn’t sacrifice entertainment value for heavy-handed ideological messages. The underlying political philosophy is there if you want to see it, but is never distracting if you don’t. It’s definitely worth a watch.

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6 thoughts on “Libertarianism in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

  1. Although I can see where you’re coming from, I don’t see this as a libertarian message, but as an American one, you mentioned the Ben Franklin quote, the man was a Federalist so he wanted a relatively strong government and from what I’ve come to understand, the Libertarians want the government to do little to nothing other than to provide a military and law enforcement and the movie never said anything like that. The message, and I agree with it, is simply “the government has gone too far in the name of security” which is something that people of any party can agree with.

    • Fair point. I didn’t mean to claim that Ben Franklin was a libertarian (although I’m sure many libertarians claim him for the tradition). I just thought the quote summed up the gist of Cap’s worldview in the film. Also, I’d venture to guess that Franklin’s definition of a strong central gov’t would still be much more limited than our contemporary definition. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. I can’t add much as I don’t know the movie – but I still feel I can say this is an excellent review!
    And I have learned that the mainframe cliché is stil alive 😉

  3. Pingback: Miss Liberty's Film & Documentary World Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) - Miss Liberty's Film & Documentary World

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