Captain America: The Winter Soldier couldn’t be more “ripped from the headlines” if it were an episode of Law & Order. On top of that, it delivers on most every promise it sets up and it does it without pandering to the audience and providing some pretty good action and enough plot to keep it all going.
In general, the film takes place a little while after the incident in New York, as explained in the Marvel Cinematic Universe production of The Avengers. Here, Cap (Chris Evans) is still adjusting to life in the present day after being frozen for 70 years and trying to understand the world as it is… And that’s actually the point of the whole film.
The fact is, the world HAS changed since the old days, but it’s changed so slowly that for those of us living life one day at a time, we barley notice the differences. It’s when you look back and see the cumulative effect you start to notice what’s really going on. This is a similar idea to Spider Robinson’s “The Time-Traveler,” (from Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon) in which a guy named Tom Hauptman spends 10 years in a South American prison, missing out on all culture and history. This is enough of a story to really play havoc with any lead character but screenwriters Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely add in an espionage/cold war era style thriller which ties into this idea as well.
Like an idea from Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, where Number 2 (Robert Wagner) realizes he can take over more of the world by creating Starbucks, the evil in The Winter Soldier comes from understanding that humanity, as a mass, is far easier to control if you convince them their desires are yours, rather than try and force them to do something which might seem, at first glance, against their better interests. To this end, modern politics has created an atmosphere of fear, allowing those in charge to gain tacit approval for their actions, claiming it is in the interest of all mankind. This is the same reasoning which gets us into trouble generation after generation. Harry Lime was espousing this same rhetoric in The Third Man (1949). The difference is that then it was far easier to spot the holes in the logic. Today, the rhetoric spouted by Robert Redford‘s Alexander Pierce sounds like it could have come directly off Capitol Hill. Framed as the fulfillment of the thought experiment “how many would you sacrifice to save the lot” there are points where you might actually find yourself agreeing with the bad guy’s motives, even while disagreeing with his methods.
Thankfully, Captain America is here to realign our moral compass because no matter what he’s been through. Cap, or really, his real persona of Steve Rogers, is the “boy scout” and absolutely unwavering in his belief of what’s right and what’s wrong. At the same time, the alternative view points are voiced by the Black Widow (brilliantly portrayed by Scarlett Johansson, who, quite honestly, is the center of this film) and the Falcon (a thoughtful Anthony Mackie) who understand the gray nature of the world which Rogers doesn’t accept in his black and white reality.
The rest of the story, which deals with friendship and betrayal and trust, is well executed but standard fare, saved by the performances of all involved. The only quibble I have is with the action sequences which succumb to the excessive CGI and camera movement which marks most modern films. If co-directors Anthony & Joe Russo had the confidence of helming an action film before this (their background is all comedy) it might have helped. They’re too worried about high octane action to let the work speak for itself, which is a shame because with this cast, I think the paranoia would have played better and, ultimately, been more rewarding.