A week ago I got to see Captain America: The Winter Soldier. I wasn’t always a Captain America fan; I wasn’t a comic book fan. But I was totally won over with the first movie. So much fun! And, better, so much love for truth, justice, and the American way. In other words, love of civilization, which works for every country, for every group of people, that tries it. I know there’s a lot of fighting and mayhem in these movies, but that’s just for entertainment; the underlying idea here is very pro-civilization.
The villain in this latest movie is played by Robert Redford. He played it pretty much as always—likable and believably self-justifying, which he does whether playing a bad guy or not. We liked him as a thief in The Sting and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In this one he’s calm, “reasoning,” and politically slick. His character, Alexander Pierce, is described on IMDB.com this way:
A high-ranking S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and personal friend of Nick Fury, Alexander Pierce is respected and politically connected. Often the person who interfaces with prominent world officials, Pierce is polished and well spoken, and presents a credible face to the world on behalf of S.H.I.E.L.D.”
They’re avoiding spoilers, but I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to just come out and say he’s the villain. You can see from the trailer, if you’re paying attention, that Captain America doesn’t trust him, and that’s all you need to know.
What interested me was the character’s common error, that there are only two choices: chaos or control—and of course any power monger wants to be among the elite exerting control. Here’s how it shows up in the trailer (definitely not from one continuous scene).
Capt. A: I joined S.H.I.E.L.D. to protect people.
Pierce: Captain, to build a better world sometimes means tearing the old one down. And that makes enemies…. Look out the window. You know how the game works: disorder, war. All it takes is one step.
Fury: We’re gonna neutralize a lot of threats before they even happen.
Capt. A: I thought the punishment usually came after the crime…. This isn’t freedom; this is fear.
Pierce: “Your work has been a gift to mankind. You’ve shaped the century. And I need you to do it one more time.
Then, before Captain America even leaves the building, Pierce declares him an enemy of the state and sends his team to take him out, which they attempt to do without questioning orders.
Pierce fits the same mold as Lenin, Stalin, Hitler: use chaos—create it if necessary—so the people will crave order and turn to anyone who offers it. Putin is doing essentially that in Ukraine this month: send in Russian operatives; claim there is disorder within Ukraine, and unfairness to the ethnic Russians who have been living within Crimea and eastern Ukraine; and then send in forces “to offer order” of the type and style Putin personally prefers, regardless of what people living in the region might want. (In response, we could use more Captain America and less ineffectual.)
In the Captain America movie, the protector of civilization doesn’t carry out a philosophical conversation with the power monger. He doesn’t use Spherical Model language, saying, “You don’t understand; there’s a whole northern hemisphere you’re ignoring. Chaos and control are not the only two options. We can have freedom, prosperity, and civilization—all we need is a critical mass of people choosing to live according to the known northern hemisphere principles.” I admit I kind of wished he had. But the movie was probably more entertaining as written.
Captain America doesn’t use a lot of words; he acts. But always according to principle. And in this movie the civilizing principle includes loyalty to an old friend, and forgiveness along the lines of “forgive him, for he knows not what he does.” And there are hints at the end of the movie that this good-heartedness is going to pay off in the future. If you’ve read the comic book series, maybe you already know.
What we can know, in the real world, is that choosing freedom, free enterprise, and civilization leads to better outcomes—every time—than choosing between chaos and control with their associated savagery. That ought to be obvious. But it takes looking up. As we see with Captain America, doing the right thing simple but not always easy. But you do it because it’s right.