The Winter Soldier has a lot going on. There’s the spy thriller trope of the one good agent not knowing who he can trust (and the others not knowing if they can trust him). There’s the actual Winter Soldier, Steve Roger’s path made manifest. And of course, there’s the fact that SHIELD has been infiltrated by HYDRA. It’s a big, brash, comic book story by way of a spy movie action. It’s also an indictment on the unarmed drone strikes of the US Military.
Project Insight is the big Plot Point throughout the film. It’s the reason for the opening mission on the Lemurian Star, it’s a big part of HYDRA’s plan to bring safety to the world, and it’s where Captain America’s big final mission takes place. Project Insight takes the Helicarrier from The Avengers, multiplies it by three, and outfits it with a ridiculous amount of weaponry. The official idea is that they’d be a deterrent, a way for SHIELD to quickly respond to any threat anywhere in the world. Given that this movie takes place in the wake of the Chitauri invasion of New York, maybe such precautions are warranted. That said, the militarization of a paramilitary government organization is certainly some cause for alarm — one that Cap shares.
Cap’s fears are well-founded. While on the run from a traitorous SHIELD, he and Black Widow find an old bunker that houses the uploaded consciousness of a HYDRA scientist who was recruited for SHIELD (along with Nazi scientists coming to the US as a part of Operation Paperclip). Evil Scientist Zola reveals that HYDRA has infiltrated SHIELD and the Project Insight will be their crowning achievement. See, Zola has developed an Algorithm, one that uses a wealth of personal information to determine whether or not someone could potentially become a threat to the world (a world that’s peacefully under HYDRA’s control). The initial firing would target over 700,000 people with the operation expected to kill 2 million in pursuit of world peace.
The heroes, Nick Fury, Black Widow, and Captain America, think it’s far too high a price to pay. But the logic does make a measure of sense. The Insight Helicarriers operate in a way that will put no SHIELD personnel at risk, effectively offering a safer alternative for on-the-ground operations. Targeted strikes against potential threats mean SHIELD doesn’t have to be reactionary, they can now act before disaster strikes. While innocent people will probably die along the way, isn’t it the price to pay for peace?
These justifications sound monstrous, but they aren’t unlike the dialogue around the real-world US Military’s approach to drone strikes in its wars in the Middle East. The drones are unarmed, putting no US soldiers at risk and able to still do great damage. They attack training camps and hideouts, and, yes, sometimes civilians get killed. In 2013 (while Winter Soldier was in production), the Pakistani government alleged that the US and made over 300 drone strikes over the prior five years, killing 2,160 militants and 67 civilians . In addition, “independent estimates from the non-governmental organizations New America and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism suggest that civilians made up between 7.27% to 15.47% of deaths in U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia from 2009–2016” . Whether or not these tactics have been successful, the cost of innocent lives is terribly high. What is Project Insight but US drone strikes with a comic book veneer?
Within the narrative of The Winter Soldier, this approach to global security cannot stand. When Nick Fury suggests freeing the Helicarriers of HYDRA’s programming and salvaging the project, but Captain America disagrees: “SHIELD, HYDRA, it all goes.” The unilateral, unchecked dispensation of justice around the globe is not worth the cost. So Captain America and his allies assault SHIELD’s headquarters and fight the HYDRA agents that’d been lurking within to destroy Project Insight and save the day. But what of all the threats to the world, what of all the dangers that still lurk?
The movie’s answer to that is found in the conflict with the titular Winter Soldier. Captain America’s former best friend, Bucky Barnes, now brainwashed into a killing machine by HYDRA, battles Cap aboard a collapsing Helicarrier. But Captain America knows that man the Winter Soldier used to be, and he believes that he can be him again. He puts down his shield and stops fighting, when Bucky is trapped he rescues him. Bucky, being the Winter Soldier, is the sort of person who Project Insight would target as a threat to the world, but Captain America believes that empathy is the way forwards, that when given the chance people can, and will, do the right thing.
This was fun to do again! Overwrought essays analyzing pop-culture works beyond their (probable) intention is such a delight. Will I do this again? Probably!