[14 April 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Sometimes, it seems like the entire social media collective has lost touch with reality. Now, that may seem like a given, but the truth remains that time, plus the rapidly decreasing window of available word of mouth publicity, demands a kind of critical shortcutting. We writers do it all the time. We begin aesthetic discussions with phrases like “imagine David Lynch on steroids…”, or “take one part Michael Bay, two parts John Woo, and a lot of CG gore…”, hoping that the reader will recognize the reference and do some of the analytic heavy lifting for us. In the case of the most recent Marvel movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the ‘70s shout outs have been almost deafening. Not every critic has made the inference (some are just too young to know), but many have tried to make the case that this latest slick, high action entry is more akin to the spy thrillers of the Me Decade than the slap dash splash of the current comic book epic.
Part of the reason for such comparisons is obvious from the moment we meet him. Robert Redford, who has been very selective in the projects he picks post his celebrated superstar days, came onto the project to play Alexander Pierce, a top ranking member of S.H.I.E.L.D. who may or may not be functioning under his own ‘War on Terror’ style agenda. It was a coup for the studio and the Russo Brothers (who directed from a script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely), since it added a level of legitimacy that we don’t usually association with the superhero film. It was like Jack Nicholson playing the Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman, or Oscar noms Robert Downey Jr. and Edward Norton as some of the big names within the Universe. Redford, a huge icon in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and a mentor to new filmmakers via his Sundance brand, may not have had a big fight scene or a moment of moustache twirling evil, but his (SPOILER WARNING) bad guy balanced out the often oversized spectacle on display.
And yet here are the bastion of paid/unpaid pundits, rubbing their keyboard clicking hands together while breaking out the “knowing” film info, pointing to post-modern movies like The Eiger Sanction, The Parallax View, All the President’s Men, Winter Kills and perhaps most notably, Three Days of the Condor, in reference to this 2014 hit. Even those with enough experience to recognize the rife differences between these titles and Winter Soldier seem unable to avoid the comparison. Yours truly dropped in a mention in his review, proving once again that even the messenger can’t be relied on to deliver a clean communication. Unfortunately, we’re all wrong. Well, maybe “wrong” is the wrong word. We’re lazy. Instead of seeing the problem with making such a statement, we double down, using our encyclopedic knowledge of the medium to make our lax points for us.
Here’s the rub, the ‘70s thriller was all about one thing, PARANOIA. These films were a directly related—and in at least one case, a direct connection—to the lingering questions over the death of JFK, Kent State, the country’s divisiveness over the Vietnam War, the growing generation gap, and the distrust of government that arose over said “police action”, as well as a little something called Watergate. While few actually had full faith and credit in our seemingly stunted Federal system, we at least believed that our elected officials were doing things (1) somewhat legally and (2) with the people’s best interest at heart. When it turned out that Nixon and his ‘men’ were making mincemeat out of Executive Privilege and attempting to rig elections (among other “dirty tricks”) in favor of the sitting party, it created a backlash that, to this day, remains a lesson in bipartisan cooperation that we’ve rarely seen since.
The thrillers of the ‘70s were bathed in the awful aura and afterglow of the Watergate hearings. A daily ritual, much like the soap operas it often preempted, these mesmerizing Q&As revealed a side of our democracy we never thought we’d see. We saw the shell game that was Washington. There were tapes of the President swearing and using inappropriate racial epithets. There was talk of conspiracy and cover-ups. No one was immune and everyone was blamed. Decades later, we still feel the force of these events. Every “scandal”, no matter how small or trivial, is a potential President killer, every misdeed gauged and ranked alongside those of the sleazy ‘70s.
So what does Winter Soldier add/apply from this, aside from its recognizable A-lister (Redford was in both President’s Men and Condor)? Not much, really. In fact, it seems to reference the Bush era’s desire to play fear as a factor in making policy than it does dealing with its rogue elements within the power structure. Is there a palpable “who can you trust” conceit at the core of the storyline? Sure. Does it come with the same impact as the films from over 40 years ago? Hardly, and that’s because the paranoia is missing. In fact, it’s safe to say that in dealing with the casting of Redford, film journalism jumped on the ‘70s thrillers bandwagon and were done with it. No mention of similarly styled films from the ‘80s, or ‘90s, no acknowledgement that the Cold War and its Berlin Wall collapsing endgame were as important to the genre as the “no clear enemies” of today.
There is no “Russia” in Winter Soldier. HYDRA, the nemesis of S.H.I.E.L.D. is not out to destroy our freedom so much as they are out to destroy everything. When the film’s story showcases the turncoat nature of those in power, it doesn’t have the impact—or ideas—of the films from the ‘70s. Instead, it feels almost redundant, as if, without the world building, we’ve seen evil in high places before. Put another way, the Me Decade movies referenced initially exposed the problem of absolute power corrupting absolutely (though you can argue there were many movies in the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s that did the same). Today, it’s a plot twist given. As shortcuts go, calling Captain America: The Winter Soldier “like” such fine films as All the President’s Men or Three Days of the Condor is off base. It may provide points of reference to said past, but not in a way that’s anything other than a quick critical callback.