Patriot Games: A Review of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”

Would you willingly give up your freedom and privacy if it meant bringing order to a chaotic world?

That’s one question at the heart of the entertaining thrill ride “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” which finds our hero in quite a different environment than the simple good vs. evil World War Two setting of the first film in the series.

At the start of the story, the “defrosted” Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) has found a career as a S.H.I.E.L.D. operative, often working with Natasha Romanov, a.k.a. The Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), to fight international terrorists and maintain homeland security. Yet his missions have started leaving him uncomfortable, as if there’s something going on that he doesn’t know about.

Sure enough, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) lets him in on a secret plan known as Project Insight, which will deploy three armed-to-the-teeth helicarriers with the computer capabilities and firepower to identify and assassinate bad guys before they can carry out their plans. Fury tells Cap the ships can kill 1,000 hostiles a minute.

The idealistic Cap, however, is suspicious of this idea because he believes in American ideals like innocent until proven guilty. He points out that S.H.I.E.L.D.’s plan is like the government holding a gun on every human being on earth and calling it protection.

Fury himself becomes unsure of what’s going on and discusses his qualms with his colleague and boss Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), who’s in charge of the project. Pierce assures him that he’s on his side and will do anything he can to help. But not long after, there’s an attempt on Fury’s life in an action scene that is both brilliantly riveting and ridiculous.

A course of events is set in motion that completely upends the natural order of S.H.I.E.L.D. along with the lives of Cap and Natasha and, potentially, the entire world.

As in the first film, Chris Evans inhabits the Boy Scoutish persona of Steve Rogers with convincing ease. Captain America bears more weight on his shoulders than heroes like Iron Man or Thor because he represents the United States at its best. He’s a straight arrow, seemingly, without a dark side. Some might think that makes him a dull cowboy in this age of anti-heroes. But because Cap lives in a morally compromised world, his efforts to stay true to his ideals – and to keep his country true to its ideals – always keeps things interesting.

Rogers is a man used to following orders, but requires complete trust in his superiors to do that. When their orders become suspect, he’s forced to wonder, “For as long as I can remember, I just wanted to do what was right. I’m not sure what that is anymore.”

In reality, Rogers knows what’s right; it’s those around him who don’t know or care, people who are given absolute power and willing to use it to stop anyone who gets in their way.

Interestingly, most S.H.I.E.L.D. agents are on board with Project Insight, when they believe it will be run by trustworthy people. But given the scope of the power of killing anyone in the world at the flick of a switch, is anyone really trustworthy? On the one hand, you want the government to do everything it can to keep its people safe. On the other hand, are there lines that shouldn’t be crossed, lines that will diminish freedom, privacy and dignity?

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” isn’t a sermon or lecture, however. It’s a political thriller that seamlessly incorporates those questions into its comic book DNA. Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo and written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, this is a movie in which the action scenes serve the story, not vice versa. I cared about the characters and was invested in their battles, both the personal ones and worldly ones.

The cast gels perfectly too. Evans and Johansson convey an easy rapport and chemistry that provides light comic moments and serious internal struggles. Their willingness to trust each other and even die for each other grounds the film in genuine human drama, as does Rogers’ brotherly relationship with new cast member and hero Sam Wilson/The Falcon (Anthony Mackie).

Samuel Jackson brings his usual toughness-with-a-comedic-edge to Nick Fury, though the character is taken to another level in light of the dangers swirling around him. And Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce delivers an air of gravitas and an undercurrent of quiet menace to his character.

Then, of course, there’s the mysterious Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) – though his identity won’t be a mystery to anyone familiar with the comics. Most of his onscreen time is spent trying to kill people, but his occasional flashes of who he really is provides depth to an otherwise one-note character.

The film also includes several callbacks to the first film that were a welcome surprise – along with an unexpected cameo from someone playing an evil senator with comical overtones.

As the first comic book movie in a year with quite a few of them on the way (Spider-Man, X-Men), “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” sets the bar very high with its character-driven drama, fast-paced action, and real world observations about privacy and power that sometimes seem ripped from the headlines. If you’re a superhero fan, exercise your freedom to see this movie.

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About Tony Rossi

After graduating from St. John's University in New York with degrees in Communications and English, Tony Rossi found a job at the Catholic media organization, The Christophers, that allowed him to indulge his interest in religion, media, and pop culture. He served as The Christophers' TV producer for 11 years, and is currently the host and producer of the organization's radio show/podcast Christopher Closeup, writer and editor of their syndicated Light One Candle column, and producer/scriptwriter of the annual Christopher Awards ceremony.


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