A genre film – one about superheroes, for instance – holds certain variables constant and allows others to change. The visual style can move, the dialogue style can move, and the force to be battled can move: what fans of Buffy The Vampire Slayer call the "Big Bad."
But in any Captain America movie, what does not move is the nature of Captain America. Thus, whenever you see Cap and you see what a director and screenwriter are having him do and say, you see that director and screenwriter's vision, not necessarily of America as a reality, but of "Americanism" as a theoretical ideal. When last seen in The Avengers, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) was preaching selflessness to the selfish Tony Stark, standing up against the rise of wealth and gadgetry and in favor of doing the right thing, no matter what. He was, in a sense, dealing with the rise of the industrialist as the real Captain America.
But now, in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Cap continues his adjustment to the 21st century (he spent World War II through 2011 frozen solid) and finds a new enemy: snoops.
The short rundown: Cap teams up with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and his new buddy Falcon (Anthony Mackie) to fight for the side of good in a battle that, at different times, involves Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, Robert Redford as a morally ambiguous senator, and the smudgy-eyed, metal-armed killing machine known as the Winter Soldier.
The visual pivot point of the film is the Triskelion, the giant concrete and glass building that houses S.H.I.E.L.D., the agency that employs the Avengers. The Triskelion, located in New York in the comics, is moved to Washington for the movie. Specifically, it looks to be in Virginia, on the west side of the Potomac, perhaps in a mild verite concession to the fact that D.C. proper, by law, doesn't have skyscrapers.
The Triskelion isn't merely on this beautified Potomac but in it, jutting out to dangle over the water, incidentally (ironically?) obliterating a fair amount of actual landscape, including Roosevelt Island. The enormous walls are entirely of glass, so that the action in the super-high-tech S.H.I.E.L.D. facility takes place against a constant backdrop of beautiful blue water and, on the other side of it, the sunshine-soaked National Mall. (It also looks a bit like the panopticon shots from the Space Needle at the beginning of The Parallax View, one of the paranoid thrillers by which this Cap movie is ostensibly inspired.)
It's rare for Washington to be treated quite so pastorally in film. Here, D.C. represents nothing less than the organic, simply because it's so green and pretty, always seen from inside a building that's so metallic and austere. And as the story develops, the D.C. outside, where the Mall is, where the memorials are, where the unseen President and Congress do the irrelevant work of governing, is the D.C. of innocence, upon which the omnipotent and omnivorous surveillance operation gazes icily downward.
Captain America is, and superheroes in general are, often tasked with protecting a certain condescendingly rendered idea of middle America, where children go to state fairs and ride Ferris wheels and teenagers neck in parked cars. But here, the America to be protected is, surprisingly enough, Washington, D.C. There are no baby carriages, there are no small-town diners, and there are no farmers sitting down to dinner. What's low to the ground isn't swaying crops but an old-fashioned city that chose years ago not to climb too high – a modesty that stands in stark contrast to the flashy Triskelion.
There's something both forward-looking and deeply conservative about this view of America and Americanism. On the on hand, just as the bogeymen of the past were based on fears of Russians and atomic power, the topical terror here is of governmental data mining. A couple of the more villainous declarations sound like things you'd find on an episode of $25,000 Pyramid in the category "Things A Fascist Who's Reading Your E-Mail Says." And it does have a dash of that '70s paranoia that inspired The Parallax View and The Conversation, though it lacks their quiet, grainy dread in favor of slick bombast.
But on the other hand, despite the echoes of post-Watergate American political cinema and its profound distrust of domestic politics, there's an almost quaint faith in that low-built, grassy Washington and in its fundamental decency and importance. Rather than relying on fields and carnivals to define what Cap is working to save, the film visually defines the imperiled idea as the government – or at least the Jefferson and Lincoln version. This movie may not have much affection for a snooping Washington, but it has great (ahistorical or not) reverence for George Washington's Washington, right down to making it a postcard against which dangerous machinations are carried out.
To go one step further, it turns out that thanks to a tax credit, while there was location shooting in D.C., a good part of what is presented as Washington is actually ... Cleveland. Rather than playing itself, the heartland, or at least the Rust Belt – because of a government program, no less – is playing inside-the-Beltway, in order to seem more like what this particular movie means when it says it's the job of Cap to protect "America."
But if the Washington inside the Triskelion and the Washington on the National Mall are 21st and 18th century notions respectively, the climactic battles are fought for the most part on heavy, industrial-looking helicarriers that could be World War II battleships. So in the end, you get three very different ideas about what Americanism means. Is it scenic, historic Washington? Is it the super-advanced technology and capabilities that both captivate and frighten us? Or is it the hulking metal monsters that represent the last great war on which we all, according to the way the winners wrote the history, basically agreed? The great war, that is, that's baked into Captain America and superhero mythology in the first place?
Whether or not all this coding is consciously done, it's demonstrably within the reach of the creators. Directing are Joe and Anthony Russo, perhaps best known at the moment for their work on NBC's sometimes frustrating but always interesting Community. They've done so much genre parody and skilled pastiche that every stroke that seems to be a reference probably is one, from those helicarrier battleships to the shot of Evans, clean-cut and helmetless on a motorcycle with his jacket flapping madly, riding in profile, that uncannily recalls another classic notion of what a military fighter as Captain America might look like: Tom Cruise in Top Gun.
Unfortunately, as skilled as they are at stylistic manipulation, the Russos have little if any reputation when it comes to directing action. And indeed, when the fists start to fly and the guns start to rat-a-tat, the action in Winter Soldier is uneven. The Russos seem to belong to the school of staging action sequences, pushed by directors like Michael Bay and popularized in less conceptually interesting fare like G.I. Joe, that relies on editing so frenetic – shots are often under a second, sometimes significantly shorter – that the mind loses all sense of real objects moving in real space and substitutes a nonspecific perception of cacophony and chaos.
On its own, there's nothing wrong with chaos, of course; you could consider it a kind of impressionism if you felt generous enough on a given day. And there is a clever, funny fight scene that takes advantage of all that glass in an unexpected way. But the sequences that employ the chaotic editing technique suffer substantially in comparison to those that don't – like a car chase involving Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) that gathers seriousness and a genuine sense of danger from its simplicity and our ability to follow what's happening.
Over and over, the action sequences try to locate some palpable gravity by suddenly going quiet and focusing on something that makes mechanical and spatial sense, like a car door skidding down a street. But the rest retreats regrettably into literal and visual noise. (It's pointless to pine for the action films of the late '80s and early '90s, like Die Hard and Speed, that relied on a certain amount of object permanence to build momentum. But oh, it's difficult not to.)
The America of which this particular iteration of Steve Rogers is Captain is a deeply conflicted one, saleable both to Americans and international audiences as one with villainy that dances on the line between corruption (from within) and infiltration (from without). It feels cynical but simplistic, made for people who love the idea of Wikileaks, whether or not they have the patience to actually read the documents it releases. The film is speaking an interesting language of reverence and revulsion about Washington, less wisecracking than Joss Whedon's approach to this world but less heavy than, for instance, Kenneth Branagh's.
The Triskelion, after all, is made of all that glass, which gives the power to observe, but perhaps at some cost in frailty.