Last week I had an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on the left-libertarian aspects of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. I contrasted it briefly to The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece and one of the few great films to evoke America’s post-9/11 mindset. Today, I’d like to dive a little deeper into the differences between these two films and discuss how they represent the current split on the right broadly, and within the GOP specifically. (Spoilers for both below.)
As I noted in the WSJ, The Dark Knight is, in large measure, a defense of the war on terror. You see the arguments of the mid-to-late-2000s echo throughout. It is a film that is in favor of extraordinary rendition and the ignoring of international borders in times of need (the grabbing of moneyman Lao from Hong Kong). Even as the city turns on Batman and pleads with him to make nice with a terrorist, the film’s moral center, Alfred, says that he’d have Bruce Wayne endure, do what’s right even if the people hate him for doing so. The film later critiques the idea of callously leaving the fate of the Iraqis and the Afghans up to popular opinion (the vote on the ferry); combined, we can see a clear rejection of the calls to cut and run the Bush administration was harangued with on a daily basis.
The Dark Knight is in favor of heightened surveillance policies to be deployed responsibly in times of crisis, subtly mocking the mindset of the civil liberties absolutists. It is more ambivalent on the issue of harsh interrogation, but only, and this is key, because the techniques don’t work. Batman doesn’t have an issue with tossing a guy out a window to get a name; the only real problem is that it wasn’t a useful measure to deploy.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier, meanwhile, is opposed to all of these things. I go on at them in greater length here, but suffice it to say that this is a film that believes transparency trumps national security, hates the implementation of drone warfare, and argues in favor of treating the war on terror as a police action rather than a military one. As John Podhoretz noted in last week’s Weekly Standard, both Iron Man 3 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier have essentially adopted the left’s idea that the U.S. response to 9/11 was not based on rational thinking but simple fear.
Film critic Matt Zoller Seitz noted his surprise a couple of days ago that the right, broadly speaking, hasn’t freaked out about The Winter Soldier’s left-leaning take on national security. But it’s not really all that surprising, if you think about it. The right, broadly speaking, consists of three overlapping (and sometimes competing) groups. You have the social conservatives, national security hawks, and small-government libertarians.
This isn’t really the social conservatives’ fight (who used up all their pop culture rage last week venting about Noah, anyway) so they didn’t pipe up. This left the hawks and the libertarians. The hawks are, as we’ve seen, relatively annoyed by the film. However, the libertarians have wholly embraced it. Fringe congressmen like Justin Amash are raving about how it’s "right up my alley." Noted John Wilkes Booth fan and one-time Southern Avenger Jack Hunter used the film as a platform to go on and on about liberty and stuff.
As I said, this is a pretty handy way to understand the right’s current predicament. On the one hand you have those who take national security seriously; on the other you have people who think the NSA is roughly as bad as al Qaeda. It seems the Republican Party in the election ahead is faced with a choice. Is it The Dark Knight Party? Or is it The Winter Soldier Party?