Friday, 9 May 2014

The Boys Of Winter or This Isn't The Film You're Looking For

Fliss and I finally got around to watching the latest Marvel film last week. My basic impression of it is that the film is pretty solid, but probably overrated.  Potentially related to this, I also thin the common interpretation of the film is somewhat off-base.  Plenty of people seem to come away thinking Winter Soldier is at heart a paean to simpler, more honest times, when we didn't need a groaning, overbearing surveillance state hoovering up secrets and trampling over everyone's civil rights to stop our buildings from exploding, and we certainly didn't need those state organs launching bombing runs against people based on sketchy intelligence and a total disregard for due process.

Which isn't really what the film is about. Instead, I think the film is predominantly on the side of a groaning, overbearing surveillance state. It just wants it to be much better at its job.

(Spoilers follow).

The key observation that we need to crack the film is the fact that it combines commentary on drone strikes and on surveillance gathering specifically so it can argue they are separate. This is perhaps more difficult to recognise than it might have otherwise been, because ultimately Black Widow ensures the defeat of the shadowy drone operators by compromising an intelligence gathering organisation, but for the rest of the film, drones are presented as an almost unambiguous negative, whereas the same cannot be said of the intelligence trawl approach.

Indeed, the tools the film uses to condemn drones are the exact same tools it uses to at least partially defend data hoarding. Not just in dialogue, but in cinematography. Throughout the film the rise of the Insight platforms is something to be feared and stopped. Conversely, every time our heroes descend, it's either to gather new intelligence, escape an attack, or to chase their enemies.

I grant I may have missed something (especially before I realised what the camera was up to) but I'm not sure there's a single moment in the film where anyone is shown to be ascending anything up until the Insight platforms take off.  I mean, obviously people are ascending.  But we never actually see it.  This approach is committed to so fully that even when Cap and the Black Widow have descended to a basement to discover what proves to be Armin Zola, and then escape a missile strike by diving beneath the basement's floor, they still ultimately escape the rubble by moving sideways, rather than up.

As if this message that sinking and descending wasn't clear enough, the answer to progress in their investigation ultimately proves to be throwing a man from a building. First off, this undermines Cap's complaints earlier in the film about playing fair. Which is fine;  I'm not sure we were ever supposed to take that seriously, and certainly I've no interest in attempting to romanticise a period of US history which includes Japanese internment camps and mass firebombing campaigns. If there's a suggestion here that Cap needs to mature and realise warfare is almost never the clear-cut struggle against evil the Second World War allowed him to see it as, then I've no problem with that, even if there's a common corollary there - war is messy so any mess you choose to create is justifiable - which clearly is a problem.

In addition, though, chucking people from buildings to get intel rather literalises the metaphor.  If you want to get something done, someone's going to have to go down one way or another.  It's interesting that the only moment I can recall in the film pre-Insight in which we see a character gaining altitude - Falcon's debut, which could hardly not involve the dude gaining height - is both cut to minimise the amount of time he's actually climbing (he swoops down almost the moment he appears on screen), but occurs at the moment our two heroes come closest to accepting Fury's philosophy that there are certain ends that justify certain means.

In doing so, it underlines the question the film asks throughout, which is whether the problem with various approaches is their inherent nature, or the inclinations of the people who are performing them. Ultimately it seems to settle on the former being the issue with drones; there's just no way to build automated death-vehicles designed to murder whomever their controllers deem an enemy and that not go awry.  As regards paranoid, sprawling security states, the answer is far more ambivalent.  After all, if the film wanted to condemn the kind of insular, off-the-record hyper-suspicious approach taken by the NSA, it would be strange to do it via a story in which the biggest mistake made by the dude in charge is that he trusted a seemingly loyal American official too much. Gathering data is not what brought Fury down, it was a failure to gather the right data. That does in fairness track with a standard objection to the NSA approach, that it's gathering so many trees it's bound to lose sight of the forest, but then this is my entire point.  This is not a film criticising the morality of the NSA, merely its focus.

Because at the end of the day, as far as the film is concerned, the issue isn't that SHIELD was heavy-handed or overly insular or heedless of civilian oversight.  Hell, the film ends with Black Widow specifically telling those same civilian overseers that they can go fuck themselves, because the US needs its spies doing whatever it takes to keep people safe, and they dare not interfere with it.  It's an utterly horrible scene, a direct showcase of everything that is wrong with the anti-terrorism uber alles attitude that has poisoned American discourse over the last thirteen years, and yet it's presented to us as a triumphal moment. Apparently it was never the Fury/Hill/Romanov concept of defence that was flawed, simply its execution. Everything would have been fine had it not been for those damn kids from HYDRA. It's the "a few bad apples" excuse, which shouldn't have been allowed to work over Abu Ghraib and shouldn't be tolerated here.

Indeed, the Abu Ghraib analogy is all too apt. Romanov's solution to the HYDRA infestation could result in one of two things. It would be nice to think the result will be for those in power who have committed crimes - whether they are HYDRA or not - to be punished when word gets out about what they got up to.  But Black Widow's little speech in front of Congress suggest the other route: that the release of every SHIELD secret represents a flushing of the system.  The crimes will be revealed, but no-one will be punished, and the whole wretched process will begin again.  Oh, everyone will solemnly explain how lessons had been learned, and admit that mistakes had been been made which is a very sad truth. But the very revelation of the crimes will be used as a reason to not prosecute.  Now we know what went wrong, we can avoid it in future. We must look forward, not back, we will be told.  We will gain nothing from recrimination. The chapter is closed. The old SHIELD was a hot, corrupted mess. Long live the new SHIELD.

Which of course entirely and deliberately misses the point.  The problem with SHIELD wasn't that HYDRA infiltrated it and built the Insight platforms.  It was that SHIELD would eventually have built the Insight platforms even without HYDRA. HYDRA didn't initiate Operation: Paper Clip; the US government did.  We cannot shove these issues aside as problems of the past about which Nothing Can Be Done. To paraphrase Santayana: those who do not punish the past are condemned to repeat it.

So yes, this film is on balance anti-drone.  But by refusing to show the slightest interest in how the use of drones was sanctioned in the first place - unless it can be applied to make Black Widow look sexy and dangerous and cool - Winter Soldier actually ends up reinforcing the thought processes that lead to what it wants to condemn.

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